MPs take a shot at targets

18th July 2003 at 01:00
As pressure to hit goals saps morale, a parliamentary committee calls for a relaxed approach, report Michael Shaw and Karen Thornton

TARGETS have become the focus of a damaging blame culture in education, an influential parliamentary committee will say next week.

MPs say the need to hit targets has harmed teacher morale. They want a more relaxed approach, saying targets should simply be a guide rather than a stick to beat them.

The public administration select committee will say it was absurd that former education secretary Estelle Morris felt forced to resign last year just because school literacy and numeracy targets were missed.

The report comes after Education Secretary Charles Clarke told MPs this week that he wanted fewer targets. "The experience of recent years suggests there is sometimes an over-complexity of targets that sometimes don't work in the same direction," he said.

The select committee report, expected to be published on Tuesday, will criticise Whitehall for setting seemingly arbitrary goals for public services without evidence about what is realistic.

The committee heard that teaching unions believed government targets for truancy, for example, had been "plucked out of the air".

This "top-down" approach to setting targets has been much criticised.

Professor Tim Brighouse, London schools commissioner and former chief education officer of Birmingham, told the committee earlier this year that target-setting had succeeded in the city's schools because it had used a 'bottom-up' approach that started with what individual schools could realistically achieve.

The select committee will not reject targets completely, but it will say that they should not be used to knock teachers - as has happened in the blame culture created by ministers, opposition politicians and the press.

Instead they should be treated more as guides, as they are in the private sector. The report will also propose that target progress should be monitored by the National Audit Office, rather than the Treasury which currently sets and monitors progress.

A memo from Michael Barber, chief adviser to the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, and Nick MacPherson, managing director of the Treasury's public services directorate, has left the committeee hopeful that it will be heard.

In it, the officials list ways in which targets can be counter-productive.

A committee source said: "It's the first time we've heard them acknowleding the risks surrounding targets, so we feel we may be pushing at an open door."

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