Moving targets are such a pain in the performance

15th January 2010 at 00:00

I knew they were somewhere. It's just like when you are about to go on a trip and cannot find your passport. You confidently open the drawer where you are convinced you will find it, and then grow more and more desperate as your mind spins through increasingly bizarre possibilities. Under the sofa? You pull out the piano in case it fell down the back. Eventually, you resort to looking under the cushion in the dog's basket - and no, not there either.

Yes, it's my annual performance management review on Monday, and as usual I cannot find my targets anywhere. I know I must have had some. My trusty PA once again proves her worth by finding them tucked inside an old copy of Morris Dancers' Monthly in a desk drawer. I scan them anxiously to see if by luck I've met them. Missed the five A*-C target by a percentage point, but otherwise all is well.

I guess my experience is not untypical. A lot of time and thought goes into carefully worded targets, which have tight timescales and concisely formulated measurable outcomes. And which have precisely zero effect on what you actually do during the year. Why?

It all sounds neat and dandy in theory. The school evaluates its success in the self-evaluation form and identifies the necessary strategic actions in the school development plan. The team development plans show how these actions are to be carried out at operational level, and performance management targets translate these to individual level. And hey presto - the school improves as if by magic.

There are a number of problems with this approach. Schools move fast, and you have to take advantage of opportunities as they come along. When I set my targets last year, we were still chasing funding for a new English Centre. As I write, the steel framework is rising. A large part of my work this year was not in my targets because it did not exist at the time.

Targets often deal with the tangential and peripheral. While a teacher is in the bubble of the performance management interview, everything seems possible; once outside, it's all about the preparation and marking again. Real life can soon drown out the aspirations and good intentions.

This could easily be solved if performance management was an ongoing rather an annual process. The targets could be amended as the year unfolded, success criteria tweaked, progress measured and colonies established on the moon with the aid of flying pigs.

There is no time. Even if there were, we would reallocate it. With budget cuts looming, the mantra is to preserve spending on frontline services, and in schools we already do that. We are so lean we make Kate Moss look like Dawn French. Schools will never spend money creating time for lots of performance management meetings when we could spend it on teachers, counsellors or basketball hoops.

Performance management has, within its very name, the idea that teachers will only perform if they are managed to do so. It might be true if your job is to sell the widgets that make beer cans fizz, but it's not true of people who have a vocation and who believe passionately in trying to give young people the best possible start in life.

It's also tricky in organisations that do not really have managers. We pay department heads a bit more for the responsibility they have, and we give them a bit more time - say, an extra couple of free periods, the equivalent of 5 to 10 per cent of their timetable. Can you imagine your local Tesco manager spending 90 per cent of her week on the tills?

We structure schools as business organisations, but run them in ways more akin to the older professional models of a law or medical practice. The reality is that teachers need to be managed in inverse proportion to their success. The vast majority will do a brilliant job with or without performance management. They do, however, need to be led.

Performance leadership? Its very meaning begins to shimmer like iridescence. Under such a concept, would leadership responsibility be vested in the teacher or the manager? Can you lead a performance?

The conductor leads the performance of the orchestra players. He does it by inspiring them with his vision of the music, by communicating with them, listening to the sounds of the individual and the whole, and by coaxing sublimity from them.

Leadership is about doing the right thing, management about doing things in the right way. Leaders find the path and decide where to go, managers make sure that everyone gets there safely and on time. It is easy to forget that all teachers are leaders every day. They might not be leaders of other adults, but they will certainly be showing them leadership, and they are most definitely leaders of the young.

Surveys consistently show that teachers like performance management. They like the fact that for an hour a year, they are the object of someone's undivided attention. They might like performance leadership even more.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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