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, and maybe it would put an end to external agencies asking for targets.

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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James Pembroke

Data Analyst and Advisor with 10 years experience in primary, secondary and post-16 sectors. Follow me on Twitter: @jpembroke

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