Masterly stroke of buck-passing

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Target setting is clearly the growth area for schools at the end of the 20th century, and it has nothing to do with education and is all about statistics. It is also buck-passing on a national scale.

This is how it works, according to the latest circular from my local education authority. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has decided on a national target: 80 per cent of 11-year-olds should be achieving level 4 in English by the year 2002. LEAs are allocated a target based on their current level of achievement. They set targets for individual schools based on past performance and indicators such as free school meals and English as a second language.

Our authority even encloses a handy year-by-year grid showing how, by reviewing each year's results and setting a target above that for the following year, success can be ours. What could be simpler?

As governors, agreeing targets with the LEA is one of our many new responsibilities. In practice, I suspect the targets will not be negotiable, so we should be able to cope. We just nod.

The current assumption that monitoring in itself raises standards is becoming as firmly rooted in people's minds as the belief that once you have photocopied a document you have also read it. The LEA paper's section on resource implications, identifies the need to train advisers and school staff - in the analysis and interpretation of data.

If you can computerise your target setting, monitoring a whole range of attainment targets by electronic box ticking, so much the better. People's faith in the magic powers of information technology is touching and rather surprising considering the acres of bilge that new technology is generating.

But we are all desktop publishers now: if we produce enough graphs, spread sheets, beautifully presented schemes of work, mission statements and literacy policies, perhaps no one will notice that Tracy in the corner is holding her book upside down.

Cynical - moi? Not at all. Most of the teachers I know still genuinely care about their pupils and value them for all their good qualities and achievements. I am just convinced, by observation of the effects of secondary school league tables, that if our education system is to be judged solely by statistics, most institutions will seek to manipulate the statistics rather than improve the education.

When we hear of a school threatened with special measures or closure that has turned itself round in a year, doubling or trebling its GCSE pass rate, do we really believe that the pupils have dramatically improved their skills and knowledge overnight or do we applaud a dextrous sleight of hand?

So it is with some relief that we see the task of raising standards pass out of the hands of teachers, who have clearly failed to deliver, and into the hands of the real experts - ministers, government officials, education officers, inspectors, computer whizz kids and, if it proves necessary as the target deadline approaches, PR companies and advertising agencies. They are clearly better suited to the task. Perhaps that is why they are paid so much more.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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