Missing the target
Target setting is becoming a more sophisticated process in schools and colleges, but a cloud is appearing on the horizon as a result of the way in which the school improvement partner (SIP) process is managed.
The process of target-setting for individual students is well established and many members would recognise it as a major contributory factor in the improvement of their school or college.
The target-setting process for individual staff is of more varied quality and the new performance management regulations offer an opportunity to introduce greater rigour into this process.
Target-setting for heads, carried out by external advisers and now by SIPs, is well established and matched in rigour by the performance reviews and target-setting process for other members of the senior leadership team, carried out by the head.
Much less satisfactory have been the targets set for the school as a whole. In recent years, this has been a top-down approach, in the style of so much of the recent government of education. Central government has imposed targets on itself with more regard for the political soundbite than a scientific approach to the process.
These targets have then been translated into targets for local authorities, which have turned them into targets for each of their schools. Not surprisingly, schools have felt no ownership of these targets and few tears have been shed at school level when the government has been criticised for falling to meet its own targets, even though the attainment of pupils nationally has grown considerably.
Few politicians have scored such spectacular own goals as David Blunkett and Estelle Morris pledging to resign if the targets for primary school literacy and numeracy were not met. Their reasonably justified claims of improvement fell on largely deaf ears amid the cacophony of criticism for failing to reach their self-imposed goals.
Belatedly, government ministers recognised that it might be in their own interests, as well as that of the schools and colleges, if the process of target-setting were bottom-up, rather than top-down.
No sooner has the policy on target setting changed and become more bottom up, however, then it threatens to revert to the bad old ways. It is something on which ASCL will keep a very watchful eye as the SIP process unfolds.
Members have been advised to develop their understanding of the 'single conversation' - the process by which the SIP engages with the school - by reading the SIP briefing issued by the DfES.
Members who are SIPs, as well as others who want to know as much as possible of the detail of the process are advised also to read The National Strategies: School Improvement Partner Programme: Advice and Guidance to Local Authorities, which explains how local authorities carry out their responsibility to deploy and line manage SIPs.
Section 6 of this document explains the SIP role in relation to the school's targets. A few extracts will explain why time will be well spent in reading this.
"As well as the targets the school chooses to set itself, there are statutory targets that schools are required to set. Each school's SIP has a role in working with the school on setting both sets of targets. Local authorities will wish to brief SIPs on the expectations they have of the target setting process." It all sounds pretty top down to me.
"The expectation local authorities have of SIPs is that they should challenge schools to improve. This means that they will look to see schools expecting more of their learners in the future than they have in the past." No real problem there, but ...
"To support target setting, local authorities are informed by the national guidance [the words 'national guidance' are emboldened in the DFES document] issued to local authorities annually by the DfES." So the process is being driven hard from above.
There follows some dubious guidance on what constitutes a reasonable target: "Where learners have similar prior attainment from one year to the next...four percentage points improvement on GCSE A* to C grades..." is cited as reasonable, although the text does state that "the extent of the improvement will depend upon specific factors in the school".
This sensible caveat is somewhat negated by the statement in the following paragraph that contextualised value-added (CVA) should be used with care so that it does not lower expectations. Surely the whole point of CVA is that context should be taken into account.
Using Fischer Family Trust data, the DfES recommends that local authorities should expect schools to set targets between the level required to meet national targets and the level required to put the school in the top 25 per cent of schools nationally. (Presumably when all schools are in the top 25 per cent, reduction ad absurdum will apply and all will be graded 'satisfactory' - or 'unsatisfactory' as my Ofsted dictionary has it.)
"On rare occasions it may be that the school does not feel able to set a target that the SIP agrees is suitably challenging." This disagreement is then registered with the local authority, which has to aggregate the school targets in order to see whether they match up to the DfES target for the local authority itself.
Where it does not, "it may be necessary for the local authority to revisit some schools' targets." That can only be described as a top down process.
This all makes for considerable concern that the system has not moved from the top down targets that beset local authorities and schools in the late 1990s. It is too early to judge how the SIP programme, now nationwide in secondary schools, is progressing in relation to target setting.
ASCL members are asked to report to headquarters on this and, in particular, on their experience of target setting, to email@example.com
Part of the problem is the confusion in the minds of some people between aspirational and accountability targets, highlighted in the excellent little book, Managing Targets, written by Tony Neal and Tony Hutchinson and published by this association in 1998.
As well as being SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timescaled), they suggest that targets should be DIM (demanding, imaginative and moveable) if we are also to place adequate emphasis on the achievement of less easily measurable, but equally desirable, outcomes.
ASCL members have long used targets constructively to raise aspirations and achievement. If targets are also being used for accountability in the same context, the distinction has to be very clear. When using targets for student achievement, we are always clear about the purpose of the target.
Performance management for staff recognises that circumstances may prevent a member of staff from achieving one or more of their targets - what is important is whether they have made good progress towards the target in the context in which they have been working.
Held to account
When setting targets for the school as a whole, school leaders and SIPs have to be very clear about the distinction between aspirational and accountability targets.
A key factor in the success of targets is that the person responsible for achieving them must feel some ownership of them. We all have personal targets, which we may, or may not, share with others. As a head, I always had a group of personal targets that I believed were useful for me to focus on personally.
One of these related to the fact that few staff at the school had achieved promotion to other schools and, although I was happy to have a very stable staff, stability has to be balanced against freshness. I also believe that staff gaining promotion to other schools is one sign of a good school, where professional opportunities abound for people to take leadership positions. So I monitored the number of people each year who left for promotion.
As part of the new NCSL succession planning initiative, school leaders now have a similar responsibility for the system as a whole. With the demographic downturn in the teaching force, the shortage of school leaders in the immediate future is an urgent problem to which we all need to contribute.
The schools' minister has agreed the NCSL plan for local, rather than national, initiatives to encourage leadership talent to seek promotion. The success of this scheme in secondary schools depends on ASCL members creating leadership opportunities and encouraging good staff from an early stage in their career to aspire to these posts, either in their own school or elsewhere.
Something that was a personal target for me as a head of a school in a particular situation has become a national imperative to which we must all contribute. Aspirational targets at school and local level will need to be set and achieved if the next generation of secondary school leaders is to be in place in time to replace those who are retiring soon.
By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders