Why hitting the target misses the point

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Compulsory targets will not raise standards or motivate staff, argues Bruce Douglas, while Robert Dupey, right, points out that the statistical rationale behind this latest brainwave makes little sense.

After the compulsory national curriculum, compulsory collective worship, compulsory league tables and compulsory annual reports and parents' meetings comes compulsory target-setting. Yet again governing bodies are not to be encouraged, persuaded, or invited, but are to be compelled, by law, whether they agree or not, to carry out the Government's bidding.

Of course, no one can be against improving examination results. The numbers obtaining five GCSE grades A to C have just about doubled in the past 10 years without any such compulsion. And, in fact, largely without the national curriculum, without OFSTED, without any of the rhetoric of fault-finding, denigration and blame of the past five years. The improvements started to arrive long before they did.

Compulsory targets are supported by both major political parties. They are expected to be required in English, maths and science. So what do I tell my colleagues who teach art, geography, history, technology, business studies, GNVQs, home economics, PE, RE, French and German? That they don't matter? Or that I can persuade the governing body to set targets for them too so they are just as important?

And am I to tell tutors and pastoral leaders, or those who help our lively youngsters create stunning stage performances, that they too are to get real and start setting numerical targets?

Targets are said to be "motivating". An odd word to use where compulsion is concerned. Apparently the very setting and publication of targets will lead to their achievement. Compulsion to publish them is likely to sound to my colleagues as if they are not trusted to be motivated in any other way; that they are being told they cannot be trusted to listen, learn, copy, or to care two hoots about the emergence of any superior professional methods.

Perhaps my mistake is not to realise that the magical method has been discovered. Ministers know the secret formula. Compulsory publication of targets, setting year on year, magically produces improvements.

I am not opposed to target-setting as a way of continuing our improvements. But why can't I use my professional judgment about how to use that weapon in the armoury, and when?

No, it's compulsion again. Never mind that we have not yet ditched the league tables, in favour of the value-added data we need before we can start to set proper targets. Never mind that some schools will be falsely pilloried for under-achievement, and others falsely applauded for surpassing artificial expectations.

All who attempt to say "Yes, but", rather than "Yes, please", will be written off as defeatist, cynical, curmudgeonly, lazy or incompetent. The refusal to pretend to be inspired by outmoded, 30-year-old, discarded organisational theory called "management by objectives" will be interpreted as a refusal to care about children.

Bruce Douglas is president-elect of the Secondary Heads Association and principal of Branston Community College Lincolnshire. He writes here in a personal capacity Target-setting will be examined in detail in the June 6 TES School Management Update. If you have any views or experiences to share, write to Bob Doe, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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