The next steps: your questions answered

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh explains what the DFEE will be demanding and what you need to do over the next few months

Is target-setting compulsory?

School performance targets for public examinations and national curriculum tests were to be required from this September. The Bill, passed just before the election, gave ministers the power to require governors to establish these, but the Labour Government has deferred making such regulations until next year. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority had been working on "national templates": benchmark results for categories of schools in different circumstances.

So what help are we going to get?

The authority would have been ready to provide guidance to schools and local authorities last spring but the election put things on hold. Later this month the Government's White Paper will contain a number of references to the national performance data, added value and benchmarking. Before schools break up for the summer, heads and governors should receive guidance from the Department of Education and Employment and SCAA explaining the latest thinking on target-setting, and pointing out what are the implications for individual schools and governing bodies. It seems certain that schools and local authorities will be fed, from SCAA, with a great deal of comparative national data on performance indicators, national test scores and socio-economic indicators.

Will there be a single national system?

It is likely that there will be a tight national system for benchmarking. The aim, it seems, is to set up a framework within which schools and authorities can work. There will be a core of national data which local authorities will take and use, adding their own local information before feeding it on to schools. Certainly it seems clear that those authorities that are already well down the road of providing benchmarking information and target-setting guidance for their schools will be able to continue. Their work will be considerably enhanced by a flow of national data from SCAA and the Office for Standards in Education.

Do we have to accept the theoryof target-setting, or is there a counter-argument?

The management theoristW Edwards Deming warned that close target-setting can have unforeseen effects in other parts of the same institution. Indecent rivalries between secondary school departments, for example, are not always productive - if one teacher terrorises her children into producing examination coursework on time, there may be contrary effects elsewhere. There is a feeling among some management experts that it is not enough to give the workers their targets and suggest that success is now up to them. In fact, real success may depend on improvement across the whole of the system. This holds true at all levels - school, local authority, national.

Does targeting one group hold other pupils back?

Withdrawing expert teachers from their own classes to work on targeted children and replacing them with supply teachers who might be inferior can mean gains in one area are offset by losses in another. However, there is evidence from the Birmingham pilot study that, handled properly, targeting one group can improve the whole school by a halo effect.

What about "rogue" year groups?

Data collection has to be carried out over time, so that trends become visible. Ideally, benchmarks will be derived from three-year averages rather than from a single figure. The "difficult" year group should be tracked all the way up the school so that its ultimate performance is foreseen.

Can we handle all the data?

Objectively measuring vast areas of school performance produces a mountain of data, some helpful, some not. Advisers speak of the need for "data literacy". There seems little doubt that information technology is going to help with all of this - the management information software suppliers are deeply involved in the discussion (see page 16).

What about the governors?

Governing bodies carry a statutory responsibility for monitoring school performance and target-setting. As yet few of them know how to do it. A paper drafted by Professor Michael Barber and PeterEarley for the Department forEducation and Employment should help them to move forward. There are implications for local authority governor trainers.

Will we become dependenton tests?

This is where the balance between "achievement" and "attainment" comes in. At the same time, one headteacher noted wryly that "teachers suspicious of tests start to like them when they demonstrate progress".

What happens when performance data reveals a failing teacheror department?

Target-setting is only effective if there is willingness to look at improvement across the whole institution. The school must be able to grasp the nettle of the failing department, and must have the resources and the ability to provide support when the problem arises, although this should not be the only way a school has of spotting poor performance.

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