How far do education targets drive improvement?

Brenig Davies asks whether targets bring about a significant improvement in school and country performance

There are many ways of describing the rules of good teaching and the place of targets in the process. Five are used here:

  • The first rule is for an individual teacher to set realistic targets for each child
  • The second is to share with each pupil what progress they are making against relative expectations for the year group
  • The third rule is to help each pupil make progress towards individual targets. Such targets might be for gifted children, those in the middle group and those requiring much help from the class teacher and/or a specialist teaching assistant
  • The fourth is to inform a parent/guardian about their child’s attainment, persistence, behaviour, and creativity
  • The fifth rule is a preparedness to be accountable for and readily explain teaching methods and planning, forms of monitoring and assessment, a child’s performance and class achievement and overall targets.

Kirsty Williams, Education Secretary, in reply to a question about PISA targets at the Children, Young People and Education Committee (12.7.12) said:  ‘It’s not my target”. There was support for the education secretary from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which said it had “never subscribed to the notion of setting arbitrary Pisa targets”. The short lived confusion by Welsh Government  over whether or not PISA targets should published  is evidence that much more remains to be done to produce measures that indicate the quality of secondary schools and is readily understood by parents and guardians.

PISA, for all its limitations, does provide useful information on educational performance when skilfully analysed and subsequently mediated with local criteria, prevailing socio-economic conditions, national and international ranking. Critical reviews over the three-year PISA cycle provides contextualised longitudinal information, which may be delineated at strategic, regional and school level. With the planned introduction of a number of reformed GCSE  examinations in Wales, PISA reports have the capacity to partly assess information on the quality of Wales’ secondary education sector vis-a-vis England and elsewhere.

So what in Wales are we left with to inform parents, businesses and agencies on the quality of secondary education, through targets and other measures? There are local authority education reports, a coloured category  banding scheme, Estyn reports, external examination results, and attendance records. Targets successfully used and recorded are convenient for school governors and staff, AMs, Secondary of Education and First Minister; though there is much ambiguity amongst politicians, irrespective of hue, seniority or role, about targets, their relevance and use.

Most parents, understandably, are concerned with the reputation of their child’s  secondary school; decisions on a school’s reputation may be the overriding factor in deciding which secondary school their child will attend. Indeed, when the quality of a school  is talked about by parents, the sum of the gossip is often remarkably close to the opinions of officials.

Do targets bring about a significant  improvement in school and country performance? Might there be an over reliance on superficially attractive targets, particularly where validation of targets is difficult to analyse, or the influence of the school’s  catchment is over counted for?

Targets for teachers and for pupils, sensitively and  collaboratively applied, can promote all that is good about secondary schooling: aspirational, motivational, challenging and influencing a school’s ethos and children’s achievements.

Targets in the hands of weak leaders and teachers will result in curriculum distortions and undermine the five rules of teaching. In such cases there will be a tendency for a leadership culture that rewards teachers just for improved PISA reports; a consequence of which might result in narrow and limited teaching by overly concentrating on PISA and other external examinations and tests – all to the detriment of a wholesome education, and subsequently a relevant foundation for vocational and academic learning.

Rigorous teacher and senior management CPD programmes offer the prospects for a much improved (overall) cadre of senior leaders and teachers, to cope where the school, for instance, is in a challenging  socio-economic locality. Targets and their results allow the whole school to account for the quality of their children’s achievements irrespective of dramatically different catchments.

Falling into the veracity trap of the absolute validity of PISA as a comparative  measure of a secondary school system should be avoided – though it’s the best we seem to have at present.   

Welsh Government’s continuation of published PISA targets, seems a wholly rational decision by the First Minister and latterly the Secretary of Education in Wales.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer

Brenig Davies is a governor for primary, secondary, and FE settings; a Reader for the Queen's Award in Further and Higher Education;  and director of an accrediting body

2 thoughts on “How far do education targets drive improvement?

  1. Although it has become fashionable to “rubbish” PISA tests and league tables, PISA is, as Brenig comments, the best we seem to have.
    What strikes me each time Wales does the test is how consistent the results are and, by this, I mean not the international comparison, but the UK comparison and the various internal components of the Welsh figures. That consistency argues a robust methodology.
    We should note that PISA shows Wales performing well at the lower end of the scale; we have successfully raised the performance of pupils who are from a deprived background.
    Alongside that we should also note that PISA shows that we are weak at the 95th percentile…our high achievers do not achieve at the level attained by pupils in England. Our pupils are bunched in the middle ground of achievement.
    Within schools I have to say that school banding and the literacy and numeracy framework did drive improvement in standards. Those measures focused minds and made schools collect data about their pupils on SIMS and similar systems. Teachers and their Unions have raised a persistent outcry against these innovations but having figures to analyse and work with is an essential prerequisite of change and improvement.

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