In the modern climate it seems unthinkable that, only 12 years ago, there were no national or local standards set to govern the content and learning outcomes of school education. James Callaghan’s address at Ruskin College (October 1976) proved to be the turning point in attitudes that influenced subsequent governments and, in effect, started the process which led to the introduction of the National Curriculum as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act.
The then incumbent Conservative government believed that improvement in schools would be brought about by introducing accountability through regular benchmarked inspections and the publication of national test results (Southworth ; Lincoln, 1999). In the first National Curriculum tests taken in May 1995, however, more than half the 11-year-olds in England failed to reach the expected standard in English and Mathematics (Clare, 1996 and Marston, 1996). The raising of standards in education then emerged as a key political battleground prior to the 1997 General Election, with ambitious target setting included in the manifestos of both the government and the opposition.
It became a legal requirement under the Conservative’s 1997 Education Act, which, through continued support from the current Labour government, has led the establishment of target setting and performance benchmarking as an integral, and controversial, focus of raising standards in the education system across both primary and secondary sectors. The main features of, and controversies surrounding, this approach will be developed in this essay in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of the current legislation and guidelines, and the opportunities offered and threats posed by them, with particular reference to those issues affecting primary education.
Without set targets, any organisation will run the risk of floundering and achieving nothing in particular. This point is particularly valid in the school environment where input exists from a range of people as diverse as the obvious pupils, parents, teachers, and governors to the less well recognized such as suppliers of resources and administration staff. It is akin to the theory of working ants; if all involved are working to set goals – especially those which they have been given significant input in establishing, they are much more motivated to achieve them. It is therefore vital that when governing bodies and head teachers collaborate to set goals, that all relevant parties are first involved in consultations.
The targets that have been required to be set by schools since September 1998 are categorised as statutory and non-statutory. The statutory target setting requirements are concerned solely with reporting the percentage of pupils predicted to reach attainment level 4 in National Curriculum tests at the end of Key Stage 2 in English and Mathematics (DfEE Circular 11/98). The relative simplicity of this means it will be easy to gauge whether the targets set have been attained when the test results are published, and indeed whether standards of attainment at KS2 have been raised – important information irrespective of whether or not it can be attributed in any way to the target setting process. A further strength of the statutory system in place is that it offers complete coherence with other elements of the education system, fitting in readily with the National Curriculum by using its existing attainment levels and tests, and also reflecting the targets of the National Literacy and National Numeracy Strategies. This serves to keep additional administration to a minimum.
In addition to the legal requirements schools are also permitted to set additional targets to reflect relevant priorities either for the whole school or for particular groups within it. These non-statutory targets can be on any issue; examples from my initial experience placement school include attendance levels, punctuality, playground behaviour and specific, individual targets for pupils with special educational needs. This ensures that the school ‘owns’ its targets, and gives it the responsibility for raising its own standards.
The inclusion of target setting in the recognised five-stage cycle of school improvement (DfEE 1997a), which also has demonstrated guidelines for its adaptation for pupils with Special Educational Needs (DfEE 12/98), points to it being one element of a whole outlook working towards the overall mission of raising standards, rather than an additional requirement. This rounded approach ensures not only that targets are set effectively but also that action plans are put in place to ensure that they are attainable.
The requirement on the schools’ Governing Bodies to publish the set targets and their attainment or achievements towards them in an annual report to parents has several advantages; the parents are clear about the aims and of the school and thus how appropriate it is to their child’s needs; they can judge how effectively the school is run and if standards are being raised to their maximum potential.
The clarity of the role of the LEA in monitoring and supporting schools in their drive to raise standards (DfEE 1998 ‘School Standards and Framework Act’) is essential to the implementation of the system. A constructive approach to the relationship between schools and LEAs would appear, from the impression given to me by long-serving teachers, to be long overdue! The requirement of the LEAs to produce three year development plans (DfEE 1998 ‘Education Development Plans’), the revised school funding regime (DfEE 1998 ‘Fair Funding’) and the ‘Code of Practice on LEA-School Relations’ (DfEE 1999), alongside the additional responsibility of OFSTED to inspect LEAs, now means that everything the LEA do is open and accountable.
The Education Development Plans developed by each LEA are also subject to Government monitoring, thus ensuring that schools are striving for similar levels of improvement across the country. This system whereby the LEA monitors individual school targets, both statutory and non statutory where they are relevant to the Education Development Plan, and the DfEE monitor the Education Development Plans from each LEA, and OFSTED inspect both the schools and the LEAs ensures that, as far as possible, higher standards are available to and expected of all pupils, irrespective of ability, school or geographical location.
Whilst education is a high profile subject both politically and in the media the level of government support in place for both schools and LEAs in terms of information, training and funding to ensure proper implementation of the new requirements leaves little doubt that it is a genuine priority for the government and has not been put in place simply to raise political profile among the electorate.
A major weakness of the statutory target setting system is its reliance on national test results to prove the quality of a school on a national level. Whilst SATs’ results can be used to measure achievement in core subjects, they give no indication of the wider picture of a pupil, such as their individual improvement, ability to learn or their social and moral development. Whilst parents, communities and LEAs may have access to additional information concerning non-statutory targets for individual schools, these criteria, due to their sheer diversity, cannot be used to compare schools on a national or local authority level.
The results of national tests will also vary depending on the teaching policy of the school; parents with children at two of my local primary schools have described very different situations in the run up to SATs tests with one school mock-testing their pupils every week for six months prior to the actual test and the other favouring a more relaxed approach, thus minimising the pressure on the children and increasing time spent on the non-core subjects. Such is the pressure on schools for high achievement in national tests that the QCA now do random spot tests on schools performing SATs tests following reports of cheating with papers being opened early and children tutored to pass them (Davies, 2000).
Irrespective of the analysis and consultations that go into the initial school target setting, if there is a situation where an LEA’s overall target does not match DfEE expectations, the schools can be asked to re-submit their targets to bring it into line (Rowan, 2000) – in effect undermining the process of establishing them in the first place.
Notwithstanding the strengths some LEAs undoubtedly offer to schools in supporting the raising of standards, the OFSTED report on local authority support for school improvement (2000), showed little evidence of any correlation between the quality of an authority as an organisation and the standards achieved in its schools. Commenting on this report the former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, “urged politicians to consider whether other ways of organising education, such as self governing schools or regional support bodies, could do a better job than the present LEA model”(reported by Lightfoot, 2000). Indeed, if the current high levels of financial investment in LEAs are not producing a general pattern of improvement in schools, there is an opportunity to consider reviewing alternative systems.
An opportunity also exists to be able to produce comparable details for gifted pupils or those with special educational needs, by providing a benchmark for the achievement of these pupils. Whilst the idea of a ‘super-target’ for gifted pupils would be simpler than comparing the varied needs of other SEN pupils, if a suitable formula could be developed this information would prove valuable to parents of children in these categories when selecting a school for their child.
A classroom level opportunity offered by target setting with a view to raising standards is that it can be used to encourage positive reinforcement with pupils, as it supplies tangible outcomes; for instance feedback to a pupil regarding a notable improvement in punctuality could boost self esteem, especially where the pupil concerned might have a low academic ability.
One of the major threats of the emphasis on raising standards via target setting must certainly be the reflection of the testing regime on the pupils themselves. An increasing number of children today require counselling for stress, and in extreme cases children contemplate or commit suicide due to exam pressure, so as teachers we need to make certain that our pupils are valued as individuals and are not merely the pawns in a game of school improvement. A QCA consultation is currently underway proposing the introduction of a national test in September 2002, for children starting primary school at the age of 4.
This test would serve to assess children’s achievement towards the early learning goals and would replace the 90 different baseline assessment schemes currently utilised (reported by Palmer, 2000). Whilst the logic of using a national and therefore comparative system is sound from an administrative respect, we must be cautious not to get carried away with a scientific approach to education and remember that fundamentally education is about children, not statistics. The test after test after test approach cannot be supportive of a positive teacher/pupil relationship, which, I believe, plays an integral role in the ability of children to learn.
A further threat is that the pressure to meet threshold targets can tempt schools to focus their efforts on pupils who are likely to fall just short of the required attainment level. During my initial school experience placement groups of children predicted to be just short of required thresholds were given extra lessons in numeracy; these were timetabled so that the pupils concerned missed lessons in non-core subjects, usually PE, in order to receive the extra support.
This begs the question of what use it is to be at attainment level ‘whatever’ in mathematics if the pupils are not learning about fitness and health, and enjoying what is generally considered a favourite lesson with their peers? Over concentration on this group of pupils can also result in a widening of abilities in a class, with pupils who are predicted to be unable to reach the required attainment level being neglected and so not being given the opportunity to meet their full potential. Those considered bright enough to ‘sail through’ could also find they are offered less direct teaching than the borderline group.
Weighing up the strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats it is obvious that the emphasis for schools is indeed on the raising of standards, and research has shown that the target setting approach would seem to be an effective and powerful way of achieving this (OFSTED, 1996). But, is the investment worth it? Is the raising of standards is necessary anyway? Were standards actually falling prior to the current legislation being introduced? International research shows that performance in mathematics in England is relatively poor and that this performance deteriorated relative to other countries between the mid 1960s and mid 1980s, even though pupils here have more years in compulsory schooling than in most other countries (Reynolds ; Farrell, 1996).
In November 1995 The Secondary Heads Association published evidence of an accelerating drop in the reading abilities and overall educational attainment of the pupils admitted to secondary school. This apparent fall in standards has been blamed on issues such as progressive teaching methods and low expectations (Clare, 1996 and Marston, 1996). Philip Adey in “Really Raising Standards” (1994) has a valid point in his view that whether the fall in standards is actual or perceived is irrelevant, as the “perception is a reality which needs to be addressed”, and striving for higher standards cannot be condemned in any case. The fundamental issue would therefore seem to concern how effectively appropriate standards are set and action plans devised to achieve a healthy balance between academic achievement and the development of the child as an effective and happy member of society. Returning to James Callaghan’s speech at Ruskin College in 1976 he stated:
“The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other, but both.”(Quoted in Gann, 1999)
Whilst the nature of the “job of work” has changed in many ways in the 25 years since this speech was written, the fundamental message would seem to be the same as I have concluded from this argument – that education needs to be about balance and the ‘whole child’. The strengths of the current requirements certainly indicate to me that academic attainment will appear to be raised, but to ensure this is an actual rather than a perceived improvement I believe that a range of targets needs to be set for each individual child, across the entire curriculum and including their personal and social development. Whilst this method could not be used to produce national league tables of test results, it could be used to demonstrate the raising of standards in a school by reporting an overall percentage of targets achieved. The limitations of this method are the time and resources that would be required by teachers in order to operate in this way.
So, despite its apparent simplicity and actual complexity, the emphasis for schools is on the raising of standards, but further development of the target setting process is needed before each child is able to reach their maximum potential.