Why set targets?

There is a concept in urban design known as shared space. It involves the removal of much of the street furniture – signage, painted lines, bollards, traffic lights and barriers – to improve safety. The boundaries between the different zones of use – for pedestrians, bikes, and cars – are blurred, and road users become more attentive as a result. Think about that: removing the things that were designed to keep us safe can actually makes us safer. Sometimes the systems we implement can have the opposite to the intended effect but we are too entrenched in our ways to see it.

Every year I produce a VA calculator, which I publish on my blog for schools to download and use. The tool seems to have three purposes:

  • Early estimates of progress: schools can add KS2 results when they are published in order to get an estimate of progress scores in each subject
  • Manipulation of data: schools can change pupil marks in line with appeals, and remove pupils to show the impact that outliers have on aggregated scores
  • Target setting: schools can enter KS1 prior attainment of current pupils to generate an estimated KS2 outcome based on the previous year’s benchmarks

There are issues with all of these – early estimates will not be accurate; schools only ever want to remove negative outliers – but it’s the final one I’m most uncomfortable with. Target setting ceased to be statutory 9 years ago. No school is obliged to set targets for anyone anymore (and lets face it, even when it was statutory, schools would usually just add 3 points to the previous year’s result and hope it kept everyone happy). So why does it still happen?

These days, schools try to be more scientific about it. We take pupils’ KS1 results and, using the previous year’s benchmarking, arrive at a series of scaled score estimates for the end of KS2. But 89.79 or 93.54 or 97.26 are not targets; we can’t track towards these numbers. It’s another example of the distorting effects of progress measures: we are more focussed on playing and winning the VA game, on changing the colour of those boxes that are set front and centre in the performance tables. (Hint: half of schools will not win the VA game.)

Targeting GCSE grades in secondary schools, with multiple subjects and grades on offer, seems more logical, but for vast majority of pupils in primary schools there is only one target at KS2: to achieve the expected standard. Scaled score targets such as those listed above are clearly not conducive to that aim as we are effectively targeting pupils to be ‘working towards’ at KS2. And even if that is the most likely outcome for a pupil, should we really target anyone to fall short of the threshold? Probably not. So why bother going through the process in the first place?

Perhaps all primary schools should dispense with such targets and set one aim: for 100% of pupils to achieve the expected standard. One headteacher neatly summed up her school’s target setting philosophy in a single statement: “Those who sit the tests will achieve the expected standard.” It might not happen but it’s certainly aspirational. It is also appropriate – it is called the expected standard for a reason. And perhaps, setting a 100% expectation would finally put an end to external agencies asking for targets. Imagine every school submitting the same figure.

Targets are part of the street furniture of our accountability system. They are put in place with the intention of improving outcomes, but perhaps they have the opposite effect. This may not sit comfortably with current approaches to tracking with start and end points and increments along a flight path in between, but that just proves we need to rethink the whole method and purpose of the systems we employ.

It may be inconvenient to some but we have to consider the possibility that pupils could make better progress if we didn’t set targets and attempt to measure progress towards them.

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3 thoughts on “Why set targets?

  1. Anon
    on February 22, 2020 at 10:54 am

    Hi James, I follow what you say with interest. I totally hear you about targets and flight paths. If used in the wrong way, they are toxic. Seen it in a tough mainstream secondary. Hated it with all my being, especially as a Sendco. Then moved to the amazing world of special ed. At first, I hit a brick wall. The target setting world that I was indoctrinated into was nowhere to be seen in my new specialist environment. No targets, no data. What was I going to do? Where was I going to start? I was absolutely lost in space and time.
    Now, I need to say here that special schools are highly complex places and one system never, ever fits all but I really did believe that all our children needed targets of some form. At my school we have a very complicated system and the way we track and target depends entirely on the child, but we do set targets and we do consider where we want each child to be by the end of each Key Stage (ish- again depending on each child). Some targets are set numerically, some are not. Nothing is set in stone, nothing is used to beat teachers over the head with. We only talk to students about what they need to do now. Parents tell us their aspirations. We share ours with parents too. All my teachers know what is important for each child and what they need to aim for. This gives us all high expectation. Looking back at the previous system with no leadership in terms of targets is scary. Outcomes were never high enough for the students. Our amazing school is a completely different place now (4years on). We are very proud of our journey and target setting played a big part in this success. It has taught me that as leaders we have to be very careful and find a balance that works.

  2. Stephen Down
    on February 24, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with that, for a couple of reasons.

    First, if you only set the expectation that all pupils will get to the expected standard then you’re effectively putting a ceiling on aspirations for more able pupils by not identifying those who should be aiming for a high score or to reach greater depth.

    Second, if you set the expectation that all pupils will get to the expected standard then, for most schools, you’re setting a totally unattainable target, which makes it much harder to see which children really should be reaching it and which ones it would be an impossible or at least herculean challenge for.

    I do agree that setting targets based on 2 decimal places is ludicrous … heck, I’d say that even basing it on the nearest whole number is unnecessarily detailed … but targets do have a place. It isn’t about chasing a mythical positive VA/Progress score, it’s about making sure that all kids are achieving as well as they can.

    I work for an LA, and we encourage our primary schools to set targets for pupils in all year groups, based on 4 broad brush levels: GDS/High, EXS/Exp, WTS/<100, PKS-BLW. A bit of nifty Excellery and this gives teachers and school leaders a very useful tool for setting expectations. Schools who use this approach generally do better at getting kids to pass all three of reading, writing and maths, because the system highlights those children that might be missing one subject out of the three and encourages teachers to focus on where that extra push is needed. It also flags up where children had high prior attainment but may now be coasting if their targets are only Exp/EXS.

    Of course, data and targets are not the be-all and end-all, but if you don't know where you are heading then you don't know which way to go to get there.

    1. James Pembroke
      on July 3, 2020 at 5:51 pm


      Thanks for your comment and sorry for the very late reply. I’ve had a real problem with spam comments that has only just been resolved (my fault for not getting tech help sooner). In response to you points, first off, I was being slightly facetious about the 100% thing. I know that this is probably not going to happen in the vast majority of schools but I don’t believe anyone should be expectation of targets from schools now (it’s not statutory). If everyone set them at 100% then it might make the whole thing crumble and stop. I was being a bit cheeky really (I also worked for an LA as a data analyst, by the way).

      But on to your other point. I think there is a bit of a contradiction in saying that on one had it’s placing ceilings on learning and on the other that it’s an unattainable target. I can’t see the point in setting a target of WTS. I really can’t. It may be the prediction, but a target? Surely the aim is to get every pupil that sits a test to reach the expected standard (i.e. what the DfE was originally referring to as ‘secondary ready’)? As mentioned in the blog post, I know schools that have stated as such in their SEF and SDP: One target – those that sit the test will reach the expected standard. And yes, some will reach the higher standard and I’m sure they will be on the teacher’s radar.

      I suppose the key thing here is the difference between a target, an estimate and a prediction. In a primary school I think only the latter is useful. In a secondary, different kettle of fish, but even then I often here about how toxic the target setting culture can be.

      Happy to have a chat about all this if you like. Always better to discuss in person.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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