Help measurement junkies to kick habit

14th March 2003 at 00:00
This Government is a measurement junky. Or should that be pusher? For its addiction to all that is quantifiable in numeric form is proving a menace to the health of the nation's schools. And for once we have a chief inspector in David Bell who thinks so too. What is significant about his speech in York last month is that he identified the use of tests, and the attendant targets, as peculiarly corrosive on the experience of both children and teachers in the classroom.

David Bell's unprecedented remarks, criticising the Government's obsession with target-setting and its effects on the quality of learning, echo comments made in the autumn by the new head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston. He more or less told the parliamentary select committee on education that schools should be freed from the amount of current testing so that more learning could take place. So, perversely, it is the quality of education that suffers.

It was a banker who first noticed the curious effects of target-setting on the institutions to which they were applied. In fact, so consistent were his observations that it became known as Goodhart's Law. Essentially he identified the way attempts to meet one set of targets had an unforeseen and often negative knock-on effect on other aspects of business.

The best-known of these examples is getting trains to be more punctual.

Setting a target for this seems uncontroversial until you realise that it will mean more cancellations - if you can see a train is going to be late, you cancel it to meet your quota rather than allowing it to run and mess up the percentages.

The problem with targets is that they themselves become the focus of effort rather than that which they are meant to ensure - a quality service. This brings me to another lesson from economics - the Macnamara fallacy. What this highlights is the way that an over-emphasis on that which is measurable leads us, eventually, to ignore anything that is difficult to slap a figure on. In his book, The Empty Raincoat, the management guru Charles Handy warns business against relying on the measurable to determine the health of a company.

Undeterred by such doubts, ministers set higher targets for schools to meet in 2004. At key stage 2, 85 per cent of all pupils must now achieve a level 4 in English and maths, despite the fact that the 2002 target figure of 80 per cent in English was missed by five percentage points and the maths figure of 75 per cent by 2 percentage points. Targets for key stage 3 English and maths each require a nine-point rise in two years, while an eight-point improvement is needed in science. As David Bell says, this appears to be the use of targets as "a threat rather than a motivator".

His solution to the over-dependency on test scores - trusting more to the judgment of teachers in gauging the success of pupils - is to be applauded.

What would be interesting to know is the mind of Education Secretary Charles Clarke on this flurry of criticism from his new chief executives. Given that he was not responsible for the targets, one can't help wondering if he is not sneakily relieved that these big guns may just have given him an excuse for failure or a means to kick the habit on which his predecessors were so hooked.

His recent comment that the 2004 key stage 2 targets were "very demanding" and that he "was not going to make a prediction", suggests that this may be the way that he's thinking. And he would be right.

Dr Bethan Marshall lectures in English education at King's College, London

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