Category Archives: Targets

Shoot the Target Grade

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Despite the person, who came to my school talking about how they arrived at estimated grades, saying that they should never be used as ‘target grades’, the school informed us that the data generated was to be used as a target grade for every pupil.

A grade set by English, maths results at key stage 2 will be used to create an aim for a pupil in year 10, a ‘minimum’ expectation in the GCSE exam…

in drama.

This was not all. I was then instructed to not only inform my pupils but to get them to write the grade on the front of their books so that they would remember it when ‘OfSTED’ came in. In order to ensure this was happening some SLT came into classes and asked a pupil or two: ‘What’s your target grade?’ If they didn’t know, they’d get told off. If they didn’t know, the teacher would get told off.

When I refused to get my pupils to put their grades on their books I got told off. I kept not doing it. After a threat of disciplinary procedures I eventually got my pupils to write the grades inside the books, whilst telling them they were nonsense, that in the drama room we didn’t care about the grade we just cared about the quality of the work. I was also expected to ‘grade them’ accurately every fortnight to see if they were ‘on’ target. This, again was ludicrous. Nigh on impossible in a drama class, well, at least, in my drama class I argued. And as for a one sentence improvement comment, a ridiculous waste of time. Feedback is verbal, I argued, in situ, to the child and is far more than a glib comment. None of this ingratiated me with my line manager.

All we needed, I told my pupils, was to make great work and maybe you’ll get a great grade… if the examiner is good enough.

I remember going through the ‘target’ grades with a class and a girl who loved drama, who was very enthusiastic and new to the school; I called her name, she came up to me to get her target grade…

‘E’.

She had tears in her eyes. I told her it was ludicrous. That I didn’t think it mattered, that tests in English and maths had no bearing on how good she was. She was to become such a great student, producing memorable work and was an extremely important member of the class.

I can’t recollect what grade she got in the end, it was either a B or an A, no matter. The other day I saw her on a terrestrial TV channel acting in a drama serial and acting superbly.

Whether her target grade had been an E or a B, it wouldn’t matter. The grade is a distraction. What the aim should be is not a grade but a profound engagement with the subject.

Yes we might need to get grades as currency but if we make this currency the be all and end all of our learning we cease to focus on the subject and instead see it as little more than the means to get a job or place in a college. Or just a fifth GCSE. Or Eighth. Cynical instrumentalism. The emphasis becomes less about the fascination with a body of knowledge and more about grade capital.

Estimated grades might have a purpose in the back office of a school, but they should not be shared as target grades with individual students. Especially outside of the subjects that were graded at key stage 2. Even in these subjects I think the sharing of the grade might be of little benefit. The focus in the classroom should be in the learning of the material, the knowledge needed, not ‘what do I need to do to get a C or a 4 or a 5…’

This is why I’d like to see us shoot the target grade…

dead.

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Remove Managerialism from the Classroom

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Managerialism is the idea that quantifiable administrative approaches are the correct way to run institutions. Efficiency is all and it can sometimes be value free in that what works becomes more important than what’s right. Employees become pawns in the game of delivery and the idea of management as neutral and post-ideological holds sway. The sociologist Max Weber referred to this idea as the iron cage of rationality, where measurable control of goals shape the lives of people and institutions. The use of technology, bureaucracy, and targets ensures all become slaves to the machine with the manager, their flow chart and tick box being the lynchpin around whom all must be busy.

Managerialism is an ideology that pretends not to be one and although a maverick leader might say they are not interested in such things they often put in place people who are wedded to efficient processing as important parts of their leadership teams.

Weber thought the iron cage was the inevitable result of enlightenment thinking that greater wisdom and freedom will result from rationalisation, he wrote that:

For the “last man” (letzten Mensches  of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialist without spirit, sensualist without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of humanity (Menschentums) never before achieved”  (1904)

Disempowered individuals become cogs in the machine. In schools these cogs are pupils and staff and, indeed, leaders. The questions to ask are: Is managerialism the main way schools are run? If so, at what cost? Are there any alternatives? What different way could schools be run?

My answers to these questions would be a resounding yes to managerialism being the default mode of school leadership and that this is at a cost to those who work and study in the institutions and also to the qualitative experience of studying itself. Yes, there are alternatives, and that amongst these alternatives is the need for the experience in the classroom to be one where the study of the subject reigns supreme rather than the needs of the bureaucracy. The pursuit of wisdom through the art of learning about the best that has been thought and said should be paramount and any managerialist desire to infect that is a breaking of the spirit of education.

Avoid the Brexit Classrooms

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It seems some classrooms have embraced Brexit fully, these classrooms can be spotted easily because you need a passport to enter them and sometimes a boarding pass too. On exiting these classrooms you may have to line up at the departure gate with your departure card and undergo some rigorous, yet ultimately futile, bureaucratic exercise before you are able to enter the corridor. These independent Classroom States are meant to be ‘fun’ and ‘creative’ and ‘themed’ with all joining in the jolly jape ‘journey’ where all are engaged due to a clever conceit.

It is interesting that the extent of the conceit is to copy some of the most tedious parts of international travel as a way of motivating children. Children should learn that unnecessary bureaucratic exercises should be treated with the contempt they deserve. That this conceit is to distract from the tedium of learning Shakespeare, Angelou, Meyerhold, Mao, Stalingrad, Euclidian Geometry, Cunningham, Parks, and the Origin of the Species is even more worrying, mindless bureaucratic exercises to make learning fun might be rendering the whole thing a shallow exercise that can be summed up with an ‘exit stamp’ from the customs officer  teacher.

The tricks and gimmicks school of teaching and learning is a most peculiar movement in which the topic is deemed to need some sort of disguise, and often this disguise is ill suited to the subject matter. ‘Paper exit airplanes’ (sic) can be thrown to the front of the class at the end of a lesson on which are written three things you have learnt about climate change, the alimentary canal or gamelan.

I am not averse to play acting, I’m a drama teacher by trade, but by reducing some lessons to a collection of tricks surrounding some important learning I can’t help but wonder what the cumulative effect of all these (distr)actions might be?

Are we at a point where serious engagement with serious topics is sometimes avoided due to the extrinsic activities that might be detracting from students’  intrinsic involvement through in depth study?

Instead of ‘shallow’ play why can’t we indulge in the playfulness and joy of tackling difficult ideas through the pursuit of wisdom?

Instead of the Brexit classroom can’t we have a United States of Studying where all can study freely without having to have their passports and exit visas stamped as they board throw their paper airplane to oblivion?

 

What Then?

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When all kids have grit, what then?

When every school is outstanding, what then?

When every target is reached or surpassed, what then?

When everyone’s mindset is switched to growth, what then?

When all is meritocratic and we all get to where we ought to be, what then?

When every twenty-first century skill has been adopted and learnt, what then?

When every child attends the college of their dreams, when every child is fluent in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, what then?

When all children are creative, empathetic, can move from job to job with ease, what then?

When every school leaver is able to commune happily with artificially intelligent machines due to the new jobs that have yet to be thought of that they can now be employed in the exciting never thought of industries of the future… What then?

When the tense is future-perfect, what then?

Gentlemen, there are questions that worry me; solve them for me. You for example want human beings to give up their old habits and adjust their will so that it accords with the requirements of science and common sense. But how do you know that human beings not only can but must be transformed in this way?*

Isn’t the way of things that mankind is drawn to destroying the very things that might, in all sense, be to our advantage? Even in the life of one person don’t we sometimes do the very things we know do us no good whatsoever? Eat that extra bit of cake, drink a couple of glasses too many, wake up in the wrong bed on the wrong side of town…?

How many people will it take to make the system perfect? Won’t we get bored in this utopia, that we stick pins in our eyes, or the eyes of others?

If a system is doomed to fail is it just a vain hope? Has our vision of the future written out the awkward, rebellious, self destructive anti-heroes or zeroes that so many find themselves to be? Oh we are such disappointments us human-beings. We are our own nemesis. Give me a target and I might deliberately miss it and even I won’t know why.

In the meritocracy will schools be there for the inhabitants of the de-meritocracy?

 

*Dostoevsky: Notes From Underground (which is the inspiration for this piece)

 

Where Did Education, Education, Education, Go Wrong?

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In a speech on 23rd May 2001 Tony Blair made the following pronouncement:

Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people… In the past four years our teachers have achieved outstanding results. They have carried through what Ofsted calls a ‘transformation’ in primary school standards. The best primary test results ever. 160,000 more 11 year-olds reaching the standard for their age in literacy and numeracy than four years ago.

Blair wanted Britain to be a ‘Learning Society’. So what did we learn?

In his excoriating attack on Tony Blair, ‘Broken Vows: Tony Blair, the Tragedy of Power’ the controversial author Tom Bower seems to set out to destroy whatever positive views  one might still have of the former prime minister. I’m not going to get involved in all that here, there is one area, however, that interests me Bower believes that the: “setting of targets… caused real damage to a generation of British schoolchildren.” In an article referencing the book in the Sunday Times 6/3/16 Bower cites the OECD report from January stating that the position of English School leavers as worst out of 23 countries in literacy and numeracy was a: “direct result of the strategies, standards, benchmarks, performance indicators and targets introduced after 1997.” He adds that, thanks to Michael Barber and ‘deliverology’, rigid rules were imposed on teachers demanding what they should teach and how to teach it. “By 2001 teachers were no longer imparting knowledge but cajoling pupils to pass tests.” The dichotomy is between getting through a limited test when pressured and cajoled by teachers or a deep understanding of the subject being studied.

The high stakes nature of the tests, stressing the child, the teacher and all those with an interest in the institution does not help, instead the perceived need for accountability replaces education. Yet all through this time the tractor counting of ‘more children passing tests than ever before’ formed a smokescreen that obscured something that was becoming increasingly obvious to many teachers at the time, whilst education was seemingly getting better, whilst standards were seemingly rising inexorably, why was it that a good number of the pupils in front of them seemed to know and care less?

What mistakes made in that period continue to be made? Do we still have the setting of targets, are we still obsessed with the minutiae of data and tracking and chasing the pupil? Are we obsessed with test scores and tracking? Are we insisting on rigid rules for teachers to follow? Is the Barber/Blair axis alive and well in our schools? Are we seeing ‘results’ whilst the underlying performance of the children is stagnant at best?

There is a problem with setting targets for individual children based on statistics of probable performance for a cohort. Ed Cadwallader has it nailed where, in a recent piece for Schools Week he writes that:

The culture of setting targets and holding people to account is so entrenched that it persists even though the method for deciding those targets is flawed. The very term “pupil targets” is misleading because really these targets are meant for teachers, who face censure when students fail to reach them, in spite of the fact that giving pupils misleading targets that cap their aspirations makes teachers’ jobs harder.

Is there still a culture in some schools that the only way to deliver success is the Blairite way? In the meantime will our children undergoing this form of education continue to satisfy some measure or other but continue to languish somewhat when it comes to actually learning something beyond the rather lowly ambitions of the ‘learning society’?

This is not to say that accountability is a bad thing per sé but that when accountability is too dominant those in the system become so fearful that though all or most of the headline measures might be reached, the underlying performance, ‘education, education, education’ is allowed to decay.

Dylan William is right when he says:

Instead of asking “What level of achievement should we have as a target?” we should ask, “What do we need to do to make sure that this child is ready for Year 4?” As Rick DuFour says, “Don’t tell me you believe that all students can succeed. Tell me what you do when they don’t”.

We could add that knowing more than is needed for year 4 should not be a problem either. The target for all children in your class should be to ‘know their stuff’, do they have the skills necessary to tackle the subject you are teaching them and how do they compare with the other children? If all are struggling, what are you going to do? If one or two are struggling, what are you going to do? If some or many are excelling where do you go next? This is meaningful ‘targeting’ based on what you are teaching and what the pupils are learning.

I have written about targets replacing teaching here.

A true learning society would value the quality of learning rather than just the quantity of it. Measuring should support, not drive this learning, and rather than cajole teachers with centralised diktats and suffocate education with benchmarks, performance indicators and targets the teachers should ‘rise like lions from their slumbers’ and be free to teach.

Education, just say it once.