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Debate: Setting targets

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By John Coe is General Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education

Setting targets – is it for the children or school performance? It’s make your mind up time for the Government

John Coe

The teachers had worked hard to assess their children. Every facet of their lives had been taken into account. There had been intense discussion and at times differences of professional opinion, but in the end the assessments and targets for the future were agreed and sent to the local authority. Then came a shock. The authority returned the targets to the school; having raised them without any consultation. The targets the school had set were too low.

This is a school where the view of children embodied in The Children’s Plan is strongly supported: ‘Every child is unique and will benefit most from an approach tailored to their needs. That approach will take into account children’s different rates of progress and their different backgrounds and life experiences’ (Chapter 3 paragraph 3.34). The teachers had carried this out to the letter, yet back came the targets, considered to be insufficiently challenging and out of line with the authority’s own targets.

Thank goodness the episode had a good outcome. The teachers fought back, justified their careful assessments and the setting of realistic targets. And they won – the authority backed down.

Confusing messages

What happened is a perfect illustration of the confusing signals sent by the Government and nervous local authorities to schools. Official advice regarding target setting affirms that schools should set their own targets and take account of children’s different starting points. But at the same time, there is a peremptory demand for targets to raise the proportion of children who reach the ‘expected’ level or who progress two levels in English and maths during a Key Stage.

In discussing the use of RAISEonline data (www.raiseonline.org) to inform the setting of targets, the Government is brutally clear: ‘Schools that are currently performing in the top quartile should look at the progress achieved by the schools in the top ten per cent when setting their targets. Schools in the bottom quartile should look at the estimates of progress made by schools in the top 75 per cent and top 50 per cent to set a challenging target to improve.’ There we have it. The performance of schools should prompt the setting of targets. This is incompatible with the child-centred view of The Children’s Plan.

‘(The Secretary of State) can no longer have it both ways – he must accept that target setting based upon school performance is deeply flawed’

Time to trust the teacher

The Secretary of State has already made it clear that 2009 will signal the end of SATs as we know them. But which way will he move? He can no longer have it both ways – he must accept that target setting based upon school performance is deeply flawed. There is a mass of evidence demonstrating that pushing schools to reach such targets has devastating effects on the curriculum. Opportunities to learn are narrowed as coaching replaces teaching. Results are artificially inflated and so-called performance is purely transitory.

The only way forward is to trust teachers to set targets based on their knowledge of their children. Then, armed with an honest and realistic target for each child we will deliver the high standards everyone wants to see.

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