It wasn’t so long ago that you’d barely hear about such a thing as a “target” in schools. I used to hear about them all the time in my life before this life, when I ran restaurants. We would be set hypothetical targets for weekly sales, wastage, annual staff turnover and retention – a hundred little stories we told ourselves. When I asked where these targets came from, on the not unreasonable grounds that no one knows what the future holds, I was told that Head Office looked at sales figures from previous years, and extrapolated from that. But the targets never went down – they always added on 5 per cent from previous quarters and years.
And the targets mattered. If you didn’t hit them, you were in bother; if you didn’t exceed them, you wouldn’t earn the tiny fraction of a percentage of commission it triggered and your salary would flatline. If you missed them by fathoms, you were called to account, and sometimes your P45 would be slid across the table in front of you…
But the fact is that targets always went up. Isn’t that odd? The assumption was that you would always do better one year than the last. That things would always improve. That not only was this achievable, but expected. I always struggled with that – it assumed an infinitely elastic, perpetually mono-linear model of growth. And the world never seemed to match its certainty. Sometimes you’d take a hit – a restaurant would open next door, a traffic light would block a road, a heatwave or a snowstorm would boil or bury your clientele – and the imaginary trajectory of the data would remain sunny and constant, while the world would be anything but.
These presumably well-designed targets never affected the way I acted anyway. I never thought, “We have to make £12k tonight, so I think I’ll try to do my job better”. Anyone worth their apron would pop a tendon trying their best every night, all night long. Or not. The remoteness of the incentive (a distant, grimy sovereign or two flipped in your cap every six months) felt like the thinnest goad ever. No, we did what we always did. We worked for the night, to make the shift work. The waiters and bartenders worked for the tips, and to make it through the evening. Sometimes they even worked for the joy of it, and if you’ve never run a section with 12 tables turning every 40 minutes at different times, you won’t appreciate the inexplicable roar of rowdy service, surfing a wave between disaster and Zen triumph.
And now there are targets in every school and in every classroom. In some ways I understand – there can be no taxation without representation, of course. And in other ways they’re just pointless and remote from the practice of education. I never worked a heartbeat harder for a kid because I heard that their target was higher than their last test, nor did I ever ease off for a kid who blew their target out of the water. I understand why bureaucracies need targets, in the same way that I understand why head teachers have to account for where all that money goes. But the target for all of my kids is an A. They won’t all get it, but until the minute they leave the exam hall I’ll act as if they can. The day I tell a kid that their target is an F, I’ll turn in my stirrups.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71