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Setting targets to raise standards: how to prevent it all going wrong

How to set targets to raise the standards that are important to the taxpayer

Mervyn Flecknoe

Paper written for students at Leeds Metropolitan University


Who sets targets?

We all set targets for ourselves:

We sometimes also set targets for others:

The reasons for setting each of these targets are quite different. Here are considerations of efficiency, of love, of maintaining an adequate clothing stock. There are worries about what Grandma will think of us, of deadlines, of concern for a friend. Target setting does not arise from a simple or single need.

Some of these targets have transparent success criteria; the target is easily measured.

There might still be problems:

These are aspects which are more difficult to measure and which were not, indeed, initially mentioned. The question as to whether I have become a better husband is one that is not easy to evaluate. I credit you with safe driving until you have a crash, which is not really helpful. For me, just reaching my targets does not constitute satisfaction; there are subsequent questions to be asked which were not considered at the outset. For you, just meeting the targets that I set for you does not guarantee my satisfaction either. You have to know and consider what I really want, even if I was too preoccupied to be specific.

Sometimes we set targets for organisations, often without telling them. I have just changed breakdown services because my last one left me at the side of the road for an hour in the dark, rain, and cold. This was slightly unfair as the weather was outside their control. Schools are often evaluated in the car park as parents wait for their young offspring; sometimes in the local shopping mall, often against criteria at which the school can only guess. Targets are set, not communicated, and then used to damn the organisation.

When I am spending my own money I want to know that it is being spent wisely. More so when the money being spent by someone else has been extracted from me in taxes. Confidence in the wise spending of taxation has been decreasing over the last twenty years, and more evidence of the effectiveness of the spending is now required. It is against this background of a requirement for evaluation of services, and for quality standards, that the Government introduced the idea of target setting in schools. It is presented as a way of trying to raise expectations of pupils, and of schools, by making explicit what we expect of them. It is also a way of showing tax payers that their money is well spent. Sometimes the presenting reason for setting a target (to enable children to achieve more) is not the motivating reason (which may be to encourage support for taxation to pay for state schools). The end use of the information about the reaching of the target is often again quite different. In this case it may be holding schools and individual teachers to account and identifying those judged to be failing.

This paper sets out to investigate the nature of the target setting that is advocated for use in schools, and its future usefulness. That is my target.

Who benefits?

Sometimes schools, their teachers and their schools benefit. One primary headteacher in a recent study said

We do now collect lots of data ... if you really want to measure, to know the effect that you have on children, you have to have some way of measuring it - not just a gut feeling. It has brought in all sorts of ways we can now actually benchmark or measure the levels of attainment the children have. We set targets for both staff and the children in terms of what we expect as an outcome.

The school that this refers to is under special measures and the head is convinced that target setting has helped him to raise standards there. He continues:

We chose writing because the data we collected on the children showed us clearly that that's an area of weakness in the school so...we can be very specific about exactly what needs doing with the children. We have been much smarter in the way that we approach what we do; we are seeing huge improvements in maths and English, but English particularly. The Local Education Authority Inspectors and Her Majesty's Inspectors were in two weeks ago and both those groups say that they can see a difference in the level of attainment in the school; so they would share my opinion on that.

In a secondary school the deputy says:

We definitely improved student achievement. There has been a strong change in student attitude...We increased the pass rate, we've definitely increased staff awareness because prior to this staff were not using any data, except subjective personal assessment data, and now they ask for more and more.

It would be easy to form the impression that target setting in schools is all about test scores and examination results. This would be to neglect what might be the major benefits. However, it is clear that, at least in these two schools, there are perceived benefits of target setting.

Target setting and flow .

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1992) discusses the psychology of happiness. After a great deal of literature and empirical research, he defines enjoyment as distinct from mere pleasure:

Enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before. p 46

This could be a description of the benefits of target setting. There is convincing evidence throughout the book that setting and achieving targets, previously just out of our reach, is a necessary condition for us to feel happy. This state of happiness he describes as "flow". Flow occurs:

When we confront the tasks we have a chance of completing...we must be able to concentrate (and) have clear goals; (we need) immediate feedback.

He defines flow as:

Effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life (gives a) sense of control. Concern for the self disappears....p 49

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1992) identifies target setting as one contributory factor to the attainment of fulfillment. Other factors are the development of higher skills and the escalation of targets to test our skills just to, but not beyond, the limit. If constructive targets are not realistic or available, young people will turn to other sources of flow.

Much of what we label juvenile delinquency- car theft, vandalism, rowdy behaviour in general - is motivated by the same need to have flow experiences not available in ordinary life. p 69

This presents the interesting cameo of the young burglar pleading to find any legal activity that is as exciting and as testing of his skills as breaking into someone's house or car. Schools can offer that challenge and flow experience if allowed to do so. Cognitive targets are not the only ones that are worth setting but they are the only ones required by the DfEE. OFSTED, however, stresses the importance of the development of moral, spiritual, social and cultural aspects of a young person, and is also interested in the development of physical skills. These latter have unfortunately been devalued as the National Curriculum squeezed both time for physical recreation and the energy that teachers have for running extra curricular activities.

The Government case for target setting.

In 1996 and 1997 there was a flurry of activity to persuade schools to begin to set targets for pupils and for LEAs to set targets for schools; (OFSTED, 1996) and (DfEE, 1997a; DfEE, 1997b). They followed on from OFSTED (1994) about how to improve schools, which did not mention target setting once. A new language had emerged. There was a tension between the teachers, who thought that they knew about how to educate young people, and the Government, who thought they knew what the public and the newspapers wanted from education. Of the many justifications for setting targets for schools, one is that schools should "improve", this is now taken to mean, to gain better examination results (Gray et al., 1999).

In 1996, only two years after the publication just considered which did not mention target setting, there were enough good examples of target setting for the DfEE to release a book about it. (OFSTED, 1996). It is a problematic area. The conflict is caught up in the Preface, p 2. "The National Curriculum aims to raise educational standards by setting demanding but achievable targets for what pupils of different ages should know, understand and be able to do."

Lack of definition of terms

The words "demanding" and "achievable" are not defined anywhere. Elsewhere the targets to be set are described as "Sensible" p.7; in (DfEE, 1997a) the phrase is "sufficiently ambitious" p. 4; This is clearly a value statement which invites LEAs to spurn the idea of being insufficiently ambitious and to urge schools which are setting merely "sensible" targets (see above) to stop messing around. On p 6 we have "clear and measurable targets"; whereas p 15 has "challenging yet realistic", Schools are reassured that "in areas of low priority" they can set targets in the comfort zone. Is this with children who do not have vocal parents or are we talking about history and geography and art? It is not clear. However "in areas which have been identified (by whom?) as a high priority, targets should be in a challenge zone." The advice on target setting which relates to the achievement of high reliability will be found in Stringfield writing in (Townsend, 1997). It is to set "Outrageous" targets.

This inconsistent use of undefined words is a sign of an emerging vocabulary that is confused in its aim. More statements that do not mean what they appear to mean propagate the confusion. Back in (OFSTED, 1996) the statement that

"The effective use of targets, especially quantitative targets, may help schools to articulate clearly what is expected of, for example, each pupil, class or group or indeed of the school as a whole." P. 5

Is a self-consistent, conceptual statement that is almost tautological, defining the word target. It purports to be an empirical statement announcing a new truth that has been discovered recently and is now being promulgated to schools. Its appearance is as a normative judgement, implying the value of target setting to schools and what a good thing it is. This confusion takes the place of any reasoned investigation into the practice of target setting, the features that make it a successful ploy and the features that make it best avoided.

The opposition expected from a teaching profession wearily contemplating yet one more ideological imposition from on high is anticipated in the statement on p 6 that "They (strategies for achieving targets) often place greater onus on pupils to do better, than on teachers to improve their effectiveness." It is difficult to see how standards can be raised without teachers being credited with being more effective.

The thrust of the promotion of target setting is that greater information about everything that can be measured will lead to more effective management of learning and higher standards. This is a derivation from the Deming school of management, see, for instance (Dupey, 1996). It does not address the question about what happens to the important but unmeasurable outcomes of education when the measurable outcomes have been improved. The writers about school effectiveness and school improvement largely assume that there is some positive correlation but data is expensive to produce in such qualitative areas of study.

A development of the language

The new Labour Government lost no time in releasing its own version "From targets to action", (DfEE, 1997a). They give the example of Greenholm Primary School which set modest targets for improvement in mathematics (from 56% gaining level 4 or above to 63%) and also indicated an ambitious target (up to 68%) and in fact achieved 86%. In percentage terms the modest increase represents a 12.5% improvement and the ambitious target 21% increase. The result achieved ("Unlikely"?) represents 54% increase. Whether the standard by which the children were being judged (SAT tests) remained consistent is not questioned because this is politically contentious and would be regarded by the Government as an unwelcome subject for debate. The school claims to have achieved this improvement by setting individual targets for children but no guidance is offered as to how this is done. Many teachers would say that they were none the wiser as a result of this guidance. Following more examples of case study schools the final advice is that:

"targets = forecasts + challenge" p.23.

This is as close as we get to guidance. In short, expect more than you predict and communicate this to stakeholders. If every one is committed to higher levels of achievement, they will likely be attained.

Developmental assets

(Benson, 1997) investigates reasons advanced in the literature for the success of young people and then tests them against a large sample of real young people. He arrives at a list of forty assets that make a difference to the achievement of pupils in schools. These assets are not similar to the factors taken into account by school effectiveness researchers, because they are difficult to measure. They include, for instance, whether the pupil spends time each week on some community service, and whether other adults are interested in the pupil's progress.

The wide range of achievement of pupils from the platform of similar prior achievement is difficult to explain without reference to these assets. As an example; Year 10 pupils placed in the lowest group (band D) by the Yelis system of prediction have a 2% chance of finishing up with a grade "B" at GCSE. The mean performance of such pupils is grade "F". Why the difference? What target should be set for such pupils? A "demanding" and "achievable" target might be grade "E". "Sensible" would certainly be grade "F". "Sufficiently ambitious" would be whatever the pupil needed, probably a grade "C". "Challenging yet realistic" could be a grade "D". "In the comfort zone" might be a bare pass, whilst "In a challenge zone" or "Outrageous" would be a grade "B". What is the teacher to do?

Only a knowledge of the individual pupil taking into account the emotional intelligence, the family, the community, the peer group, and the prevailing youth culture will yield guidance. Only influence over some of those factors will ensure higher achievement.


Successful target setting

It is clear that the Government has targets for the education system drawn up, partly, in response to international comparisons see (Reynolds & Farrell, 1996) and Brown in (Slee, Weiner, & Tomlinson, 1998). These are national targets and communicating them to stakeholders will result in resources, including teachers' free time and good health, being reallocated towards meeting them. Each LEA has targets to meet, some from the Government and some internal. The internal ones are put together from targets supplied by schools (after "challenge" has been added) and partly from internal professional and political pressure. Schools have targets to reach. These targets result from league table pressure, governor pressure, considered judgement by the staff and head and the expectations of each pupil (with added "challenge"). Pupils have targets, and these are the most relevant. They deserve a reflection all of their own.

All pupils have targets to meet. The nature of these targets and the degree of acceptance of them is crucial to the attainment of them. They range from acquiring a pair of Adidas football boots (120 of someone's money), finally attracting the attention of the bouncer with the built body and getting a kiss at the end of the night, achieving better grades on coursework, to being selected for the netball team. The nature of the targets that are accepted by the pupil and his or her parents, and not derided by his or her peer group, determines the success of the pupil and the success of the school. In order for these targets to be what government would regard as of positive social, moral, spiritual and cultural value, as well as representing cognitive gains, certain elements must be in place.

In order to accept a target as valid, and worthy of effort, it has to be seen to be valuable to the individual, to parents, and to the community to which the individual wishes to belong. It must be possible to know whether the target has been attained, and attaining the target must be seen to be acknowledged in some way. There are problems with all of these conditions for our pupils, most of all for our inner-urban and far-rural pupils.

For academic targets to be perceived as valid they must be seen to have currency in terms of lifestyle. This is an economic problem that is laid at the feet of the school unfairly. Getting parents on board is not mentioned in the publications reviewed above but it is crucial when pupils spend 85% of their waking life under the direction of parents (who may choose, of course, not to direct). The peer group community which surrounds the child has great influence (see (Harris, 1998a; Harris, 1998b) and the school can, with difficulty, tackle that and substitute loftier aims with sufficiently secure pupils. Knowing whether the target has been attained is squarely in the teachers' court. Pupils must have regular feedback and appreciation for their attainment but, sadly, teachers are often reluctant to lay themselves on the line by committing themselves to grades, and are often more preoccupied with criticism than with praise. This discourages both target setting and target aiming.

A consideration of (Benson, 1997) leads to the following typology of the influences on pupil achievement:

We might also add the hopes and self-beliefs of the pupil as being important conditions. In order to use target setting successfully, many influences on the pupil have to be brought to bear, not just teacher aspiration communicated directly to the pupil. Targets must be agreed with parents. This will be a successful influence if the relationship is positive. Targets must be agreed by the pupil, this will be successful if the reward for attaining the target in the pupil's eyes is sufficient to justify the hard work required. The parents and school must seek to influence the peer group so that aspiration is shared. Other adults in the community will have an influence and this is difficult for the school to influence. The pupil's discretionary time needs to be used with positive care, part time jobs, nightclubs, drinking, smoking and other drug taking will all have an influence. In schools situated in a positive, supportive community ethos, target setting will be more successful and the teachers who work there will not necessarily understand the failure of similar initiatives in other schools. Neither, necessarily, will OFSTED inspectors.

How might target setting benefit the learner?

We all have targets and goals; they shape our lives. In this university many professionals who are participants in our programmes of study formalize their goals in each relationship which is important to them. They proceed from this step to set out a mission statement. These goals encapsulate principles of which they were often unaware. Without these principles, embodied in goals or targets, people drift with the winds of change, they have no basis on which to make decisions, they cannot be trusted to be consistent. Most of us have unarticulated goals or targets which others can deduce from our behaviour but which may be unknown to us. Articulation of goals or targets enables the whole of a supportive community to assist in progress towards them. Being persuaded by a respected adult that one's targets are too low, one's goals are too modest, can be a spur towards much higher belief in oneself. This leads towards much higher effort, when the purpose is understood and believed in, and to a much more intense focus on learning, to the exclusion of behaviour which might be considered anti-social. There are clear benefits to be had for the pupil, for parents, for teachers, for the school, the LEA and wider society. These gains are only available when target setting properly persuades all stakeholders of the validity of higher pupil aspirations.

Target setting as accountability

In addition to its usefulness in raising achievement when the full scope of target setting is harnessed, target setting has a function as a mechanism of accountability. Simpkins, in (Fidler, Russell, & Simpkins, 1997) says that the essence of accountability is:

First, an expectation that A will act in ways which are consistent with the legitimate requirement of B; secondly, that A will render some form of account to B for their performance; and thirdly, that B may exercise sanctions over A if A fails to conform to B's expectations. P 22

The target setting debate is centred on the "legitimate requirements" which B (the Government) has of A, the school system. These requirements are held to be cognitive gains as measured by examinations. It is open to A to influence B to think more broadly about what its legitimate requirements are. It might be that schools could sell the idea to their local community, to their local elected representatives and to OFSTED (tricky, but it has been done) that there are more important things to aim at alongside examination success. Public schools set out in their prospectus what they will provide for parents and for pupils. They survive or go to the wall according to whether the public buys the ideas. If parents do buy the ideas, any complaints are referred to the marketing material or mission statement. "Are we providing what we said we would provide and what you said you wanted?". State schools have so many interested parties that it is difficult to please them all, some requirements are statutory. Some parents do not choose the school but just allow their children to attend one that is allocated.

The target setting debate needs to address the legitimate requirements that the taxpayer has of education. What are these? They conflict with the currently mposed targets for examination results to some extent. The taxpayer requires that future generations should

Do our teachers feel that the targets, which they are compelled to set, enable our present young people to aspire to such behaviours?

Imposed target setting which is for the purposes of accountability for examination results alone and in isolation from the mood of the community will not satisfy the requirements of the target setting which raises self belief and changes communal values. This is true even if it produces the same examination results. The ownership is all wrong. Even if the targets were the same, it is one thing to say "I think I can jump over that wall" and quite another to be told "You must jump over that wall". If a big dog was after you (think of an OFSTED school inspection), you might scale it without difficulty, but your attitude on the other side would be of exhaustion and terror rather than of pride and joy.


There was a clear progression in DfEE thinking about target setting in response to the twin problems of having to reach targets arising from international comparisons and having to convince the public that their money was being well spent on state education. It might be that some long term issues also influenced them in terms of the higher taxes expected of well educated pupils and the greater social security and incarceration costs of poorly educated pupils. In (OFSTED, 1994) target setting was ignored. In (OFSTED, 1996) it was examined. In the subsequent publications vague details of how schools have used it and how it might ratchet up national standards are addressed. I expect some publication soon in which parents are invited to join in the process directly.

These documents can be criticised to expose the ideological nature of the arguments within them and it is clear that much of what has been written is in the nature of unsupported assertion and features many of the indices of ideology outlined by (Hartnett & Naish, 1976). However it is difficult to see an alternative to this sort of publication. There is little systematic evidence of how to raise standards in education. There is dispute about what standards are important and how we measure them. The Government could just fund whatever teachers wish to do and to ask for, but it is difficult to imagine the most hardened political satirist behaving in this way with his or her own money, let alone with money in trust from reluctant donors. Those who pay the piper are expected to call the tune. In an arena where so little is known there can only be ideological statements about the way forward. Teachers are not now expecting (as they did 30 years ago) to be treated as respected professionals who knew what was right for education. This has unfortunate spin-offs in terms of the reliance that is put on their judgements by parents on matters to do with their children.

Possibly, if teachers as a body show that they are responsive to current public opinion as articulated by the government of the day (and influenced locally by their own statements of intent), they will win back some of that respect. It might be possible for the profession to sell other values to the public and to the Government by which to be assessed. However, target setting is here to stay as a means of political control. The question is whether teachers and schools can subvert the process to include the relevant stakeholders so that it may be a tool for the raising of relevant achievement. This requires not only political nous, it also demands time for consultation with pupils and parents, it requires skillful and intuitive control of culture in the school amongst the teachers and amongst the pupils with the aim of influencing the culture of the community. This is a tall order for hard pressed schools and for teacher unions!

Policy is cyclical, with ideas coming and going in public esteem. The ideas of (Anderson, 1982) have an enduring echo in the minds of many voters. The call for good performance in measurables is unlikely to go away and teachers would be wise to heed that, however ideological the call for it may be.



Anderson, D. (1982). Detecting bad schools; a guide for normal parents: The Social Affairs Unit.

Benson, P. (1997). All kids are our kids: what communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents ( 1 ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1992). Flow, the psychology of happiness. London: Rider.

DfEE, S. a. E. U. (1997a). From targets to action. London: DfEE.

DfEE, S. a. E. U. (1997b). Setting targets for pupil achievement. London: DfEE.

Dupey, R. (1996). Deming's way; a marriage of theory and practice. Managing Schools Today, 5(9).

Fidler, B., Russell, S., & Simpkins, T. E. (Eds.). (1997). Choices for self-managing schools: autonomy and accountability. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Gray, J., Hopkins, D., Reynolds, D., Wilcox, B., Farrell, S., & Jesson, D. (1999). Improving schools: performance and potential (1 ed.). Buckingham: OUP.

Harris, J. R. (1998a). The nurture assumption: why children turn out the way they do: Bloomsbury.

Harris, J. R. (1998b). Who needs parents? New Scientist, 12 December 1998, 48-51.

Hartnett, A., & Naish, M. V. H. L. (Eds.). (1976). Theory and Practice of Education (Vol. 2). London: Heinemann.

OFSTED. (1994). Improving Schools. London: HMSO.

OFSTED. (1996). Target setting to raise standards: A survey of good practice. London: DfEE.

Reynolds, D., & Farrell, S. (1996). Worlds apart? A review of internatonal surveys of educational achievement involving England. London: OFSTED HMSO.

Slee, R., Weiner, G., & Tomlinson, S. (Eds.). (1998). School effectiveness for whom? Challenges to the school effectiveness and school improvement movements. London: Falmer Press.

Townsend, T. (1997). Restructuring and quality: issues for tomorrow's schools: Routledge.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 14 July 2000