Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Unfair targets

Clown face

Principal Steve Baker hits back against the flawed logic behind the government's hit list of schools below 30 per cent A*-C GCSEs. Threatening and bullying already good schools will not truly raise standards or children's aspirations, he says.

A recent OECD report has warned that negative perceptions created from flawed judgements can send a school into a vicious downward spiral. It questions England's 'name and shame' policy and argues that league tables favour the most socially advantaged schools.

'Standards' in New Labour doublespeak now merely reflect 'quality of intake'. The latest plans to close so called 'failing' schools continue to mistake common cause variation from specific cause variation.

There is increasing evidence that public-sector 'reform' based on the quasi-market and targets is deeply flawed. The over-reliance on these as levers for improvement are creating underperformance in the education system.

Finland uses data to judge the effectiveness of the whole system, not to brow beat schools. Finland is a country that believes that every child really does matter: a country sitting at the very top of the OECD league tables. In England the predictable response to a thin rationale for stalling standards is to threaten, browbeat, humiliate and shame.

WE Deming argued that 94 per cent of problems were directly attributed to the system. The relative underperformance of pupils from poor backgrounds is greater in the UK than other OECD countries. In Canada, Finland and Korea (countries often quoted from PISA surveys) the difference is much lower.

In Finland there are no league tables, no quasi-markets, no targets set at school level, no performance-related pay systems. More sophisticated governments realise that it is fundamentally wrong to blame poverty on the poor, wrong to blame and shame some of the country's most effective schools.

John Seddon argues that: "Adequate does nothing for morale. Ministers have followed ideologically inspired, amoral theories; they have become blind to their moral responsibility. Instead of competition we should be concerned with co-operation... Instead of a dim and damning view of human nature, we need an optimistic and constructive view."

What the 638 schools on the latest hit list will now do is divert an obscene proportion of resources to the 20 or 30 year 11 students that could make a difference to hitting an arbitrary target.

A better way

There is a better way. It lies in the long haul of improving the system as a whole. Deming would no doubt agree that the blame culture, hectoring and constant bullying of headteachers choosing to work in the most challenging communities by DCSF is indeed amoral.

My school has recently received value-added awards from the SSAT. We enjoy a CVA of over 1025. Visitors from Ofsted to Artsmark praise our work. We are popular in the local community with over 200 first choices.

Our reward? Losing Leading Edge and Training School Status. Not because of the high quality of provision you understand. That no longer counts. The only statistic that now matters is 30 per cent five A*-C with English and mathematics. No hope of developing a second specialism. We may now not even qualify to keep our first specialism. Why? We didn't meet the Prime Minister's 2011 target in 2007.

What a bizarre world. How have we let this happen? Report after report shows that socio-economic status is far more important in a child's future academic achievement than the quality of school leadership or teaching.

Of course, good schools make a difference. Of course, good teachers make a difference. However, the bullies at the ministry of misinformation are hiding behind this simplistic rhetoric.

To retain 'status' and access resources we need to hit an arbitrary target. These things are now coming thick and fast. A problem with poor children accessing the 'top' universities? Produce a new league table.

Playing the target game

Targets produce perverse consequences. People who believe in targets simply assume they need to refine the targets or identify the 'poor performers'. This means we find ever more cunning ways to meet them.

Seddon argues that targets make people accountable but they then behave accordingly, by doing whatever is within their means, fair or foul, to be seen to meet them. Hence teachers end up in jail for 'cheating'. Attendance figures are massaged. Curriculum deputies are taught to play the game by the ever increasing army of paid consultants.

This is no way to manage a system, no way to lead a highly qualified and motivated workforce. Targets have been making services worse. Politicians imagine that the people like me leading our schools must be under-performing and 'difficult'. We are not as the OECD report shows.

The DCSF through the schools commissioner is now encouraging authorities to convert schools in challenging communities to academies. They told our local authority "leave the b.....s no bolt holes". The New Labour policy is to strip schools of status, humiliate them in public, and give extra status and resources to their neighbouring 'good' schools.

What place moral purpose? What place social justice and community cohesion?

Manchester University research shows that the needs of children from poor working-class homes are overlooked as schools focus on securing good positions in exam league tables.

The report said: "We have a lopsided view of equity issues in education because we assume they can be attributed to poor leadership and teaching in schools. But for schools in disadvantaged areas, the solutions lie beyond the school gates... You have to look at the whole picture and help partnerships analyse what's going on to have a real impact."

Pupils' deeper cultural, moral, sporting, social and spiritual faculties are marginalised by a system in which all must come second to delivering improving test and exam numbers. There is overwhelming evidence that systemic change is needed to produce greater social justice, community cohesion and economic prosperity for our nation.

ASCL is right to call for greater collaboration. In our area, our attempts to develop a Co-operative Trust build on years of successfully running a soft federation. There is real potential for improvement by forming local partnerships and integrating children's services.

Each headteacher of the co-operative recognises that pupils' difficulties come from outside school and that it is not possible to tackle them effectively working in isolation. Using co-operative principles for the good of the entire community is a small step forward. It is one small systemic change.

It will not stop the bullies from beating us up in the playground but it will enable us to move forward with dignity.

Steve Baker is principal of Lipson Community College in Plymouth.

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