Our target should be to streamline targets

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
Targets are getting a bad name. Focusing on waiting lists has distorted clinical priorities. Cutting train delays affects safety. And exclusion targets hinder good discipline.

But targets are not themselves a bad thing: a small number of considered goals can improve standards. Our attitude often depends on whether we are delivering targets or using the services.

In schools, Labour's targets for exam achievement, infant class sizes and exclusions reflect three different approaches: the effective outcome-related target; the headline-grabber; and the well-meaning but flawed target. Having been present at the birth of all three,I have observed how well they work in practice.

In 1997, Labour set targets for key stage 2 test results - more than three-quarters of 11-year-olds to meet expected standards in English and maths. Teaching unions claimed that only half of this age group could be expected to have mastered these basics. David Blunkett disagreed and told BBC television that his head would be on the block if the targets weren't met.

The targets were effective. Teachers were trained. Inner-city schools got extra help and expectations rose there. New teaching methods were introduced, with well-produced materials. Every school aimed to improve on its previous best. And 90 per cent of heads now back the literacy and numeracy strategies.

Secondary school exam targets (set at the same time) improved results most for Black and Asian youngsters and for the children of unskilled families, according to the Youth Cohort Study. The new key stage 3 targets should have a similar impact.

However, making exam results public is part of their effectiveness. If targets are set, the public should see the results. The decision to abandon performance tables in Wales and Northern Ireland will hardly help.

The class-size pledge was a headline-grabber designed to make maximum impact in the 1997 election campaign. If you ask the public what they think will do most to improve schools, lowering class sizes ranks high on the list (just above more homework).

Class sizes had risen for at least seven years. The pledge was that no infant be in a class over 30. Higher literacy standards would have been a better promise, but harder to explain on pledge cards.

The pledge will be met in September, but after the election it meant a huge building programme (mainly in popular schools in the suburbs and shires) and prescriptive legislation to get it right. Schools did get extra teachers and new classrooms. And 12,000 more parents got their first choice primary school.

But it also meant being over-prescriptive in rural areas. And critics claimed the infant pledge led to bigger secondary classes.

In fact, secondary classes grew more slowly under Labour than under the Tories - and have now started to fall. Nevertheless, doubts crept in so that most voters believed the pledge was not being met. No sensible government will try as prescriptive a class size pledge again.

Finally there were exclusion targets, which have now been abandoned. The number of permanent expulsions from schools had soared from around 3,000 in 1991 to 12,000 by the mid-1990s. Tory ministers had started to tell schools to cut them down. An otherwise sensible 1998 report by the Social Exclusion Unit recommended new measurable targets for reducing exclusions by a third.

The objective was well-meaning, its logic apparently impeccable. Without targets, Whitehall and local authorities would do nothing. However, permanent exclusions would have fallen anyway because there were more on-site learning support units.

The headline targets angered the teaching unions and generated wild myths. The irony was that major improvements in provision for excluded children and improved discipline measures in schools were obscured.

The truth is that a small number of clear targets will work, but ministers should restrict their number and scope. Other departments seeking sporting or health targets for schools should be sent packing. The Treasury's obsession with them should be curtailed.

As she puts the finishing touches to the delayed Schools White Paper and prepares her bid for the 2002 spending review, Estelle Morris must fight the target tyrants. If she succeeds, she has every chance of delivering real improvements in our schools.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment, 1997-2001

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