Targets that make us slaves of the system

10th April 2009 at 01:00

Crude managerialism is undermining teachers' confidence, enthusiasm and self-belief in sixth form colleges. The unspoken dogma says everything can be measured, and that anything that can be measured can be managed. "Facts" are consequently produced that reassure and vindicate the managers' political masters without reflecting reality.

The first part of the dogma is simply wrong. What teachers and students do cannot be measured. It can and ought to be assessed, but assessment is not measurement.

Nevertheless, teachers are certainly being managed. There is a pervading sense we never really get the job right. The spirit of the free market has invaded education and induced servility among people whose job should be to lead and inspire.

Teachers today are put before a tribunal of data: the exam grades and value-added scores of their classes. They are held to account if they are not reaching unexplained benchmarks. They are made to feel their personal worth depends upon factors that are out of their control - whether their students exceed or undershoot the benchmark.

Yet we know that the same teacher can teach the same course, lesson by lesson, to groups of similar ability and get different results. We are dealing every year with different people, with different lives.

I am not denying poor teaching produces poor results. But results are not the bottom line. For the majority of teachers, who range from competent to excellent, the policy of measuring at best produces cynicism; mostly it undermines self-worth.

It is misguided to conflate the objectives of a task with fixed measures for judging its success. Because we have done so, we have produced a disjunction between exam results, knowledge and understanding.

Yet managerialism insists on targets and action plans as the model for teacher improvement. Targets are negotiated, but staff are not free to refuse to have any at all. Targets free the teacher from enthusiasm, ideals and imagination - such things are not measurable - and enforce the idea that we are all lacking something professionally.

Targets are the agents of servility. They assert we cannot be trusted to do our jobs as well as we possibly can for ourselves. Self-motivation and pride in one's work are unnecessary: they are not objectively achievable, thus unmentionable.

If we pay lip-service to this culture, we end up leading lives of professional duplicity. For example, we measure a class's success by comparing the percentage of students on roll in October who go on to pass the course against a "benchmark". This is the Government's managerialist bludgeon to increase participation post-16.

This official description of "success" puts the quality of young people's knowledge and understanding second to the numbers who reach the minimum. The message is that high achievement is not worthwhile relative to high levels of participation. Our aim should be to work at both without prioritising either.

Rigid, formula-driven policy such as this closes alternative thought. Even to argue against the success rate implies you are an old-fashioned elitist who believes that more must mean worse.

The teacher is made to feel that to develop the highest levels of knowledge and understanding in the classroom is not what they are really there for. Mingled insecurity and guilt emerge again and make us ultimately all the easier to "manage": to do as we are told.

John Golding (not his real name), Teacher in a sixth form college.

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