March Madness: terrible targets and the ethical insanity of ‘expected progress’

“I don’t feel it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” Foucault.

Readers of this blog, if you have never had the joy of working in a school, you may or may not be surprised to learn that at the age of 11 (depending on what kind of school you attended) you were given a number that represented your current level of skills and knowledge, and that this number was used to generate a series of others numbers called ‘targets’ which represented the grades you were supposed to get across your GCSEs. You may think it pure madness when you learn that this information had a profound impact on what your teachers thought you capable of. You may be surprised by the further madness that this ‘target setting’ culture is all pervasive in our education system. You might find this particularly depressing because you thought our education system had moved away from defining children’s abilities at the absurdly young age of 11 back in the 70s.

To those working in education targets are no longer ‘madness’- they have become normalised. The idea that what a student was capable of at the age of 11 is a good predictor of what they are capable of at GCSE is deeply ingrained in school cultures. How does it impact the way schools work? Let’s imagine someone assigned the 4C number at the age of 11:

  1. Flight Paths: a calculation is made- this student needs to/has the potential to get a C or 5 at GCSE. The school then works out how many ‘steps’ towards this grade they need to make year on year. This is created into a map or ‘Flight Path’ that helps the school plan how to intervene with this student if they look likely to underachieve. Note: it is not taken into consideration what the child and their parents would like to get/need to get for the sake of future careers or other aspirations; nor is the possibility that a C might not be a good outcome for them more generally; nor is the possibility that they just under-performed at the age of 11 when not realising they were going to have their academic success defined by that test. In that sense, the child plays no active role in deciding what the school is aiming for on their behalf. So much for the ethical importance of ‘choice’ in schools.
  2. Academic progress: in a lot of schools, the Flight Path is used to define what set you are put in. Given that low ability students- or those with extra needs, or those with other social barriers- make less predictable progress, they will suffer the most from being grouped early on. If this student is lucky enough to be in a mixed ability setting then year-by-year their teachers will be held to account according to said targets. If the student has reached their target by December the focus will shift to other children; the teacher has little incentive to build in over-achievement that might help them to gain above a C or beat the prediction off the basis of the Flight Path.
  3. Child development: what if they don’t reach their target? Using this flight path, if someone begins to underachieve across a range of subjects, many schools will support that child in holistic ways. This may involve joint meetings of staff and experts in child welfare. They may try to working out how to approve their attendance by tackling underlying problems or collaborate with the individual to understand what kind of learning they enjoy. They may refer the individual to specialists when they need it and staff across the school will work together to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks. Many schools, however, do not have the resources to do this. They will look for short cuts to ensure that students perform at the level they need to in any given year. This could involve fining parents instead of supporting them. It could involve placing pressures on teachers to get the targets to such an extent that they over-scaffold learning (e.g. aggressively directive writing frames to help the child produce a semblance of an essay without any of the knowledge required to build it on their own.) It could involve, in Year 11 or before, getting rid of that student from the school. This is all underpinned by the necessity of the student to make the ‘expected progress’ at a steady yearly rate as defined by the Flight Path.

And then in Year 11, the theory goes, the child gets their C or 5. (Then the child realises they need a 7 to get into the sixth form they want; they need a 7 to study the subject they want or they need a 7 to get a well paid career but it is all too late.)

So, the whole school career of a child is deeply effected by targets and in a manner that could create real problems for a child. Given the impact of these targets on schools and on children’s lives, it would be madness for schools to use these if they provided terrible insights. I’m guessing that you’re guessing that schools would only use them if they were accurate, right?

Wrong. In this merry, mad month of March, over three years ago the Education Data Lab published this analysis:

“by reviewing the data, we find that only 9% of pupils take the expected pathways through Key Stage Two, Key Stage Three and Key Stage Four Levels… the capacity of the model to accurately predict pupil’s attainment falls in secondary schools… Our evidence suggests that the assumptions of many pupil tracking systems and Ofsted inspectors are probably incorrect.”

That means we are judging over 90% of students against a measurement that in no way reflects or predicts their ability. The fact is very few students make progress in the way we would like to think. So why do we use these inflexible models? Is this because schools have lost their way, rationally and ethically? No. Many, many people in schools know this system is terrible; but, remember, whenever you read an Ofsted report that says “students are making less than expected progress” you are reading the impact that targets and Flight Paths have. Schools simply cannot afford to turn to someone and say the truth: ” ‘The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning’ and so, we don’t use targets.”

Terrible accountability systems that use flawed methodologies make good educators waste time doing mad things. With methods like these, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised when we can’t compete internationally.



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