Must Try Harder

school report 1Remember the heady days of last year’s ‘Bad Performance Measurement On Tour’ blog posts, where objects of ridicule such as targets for dog poo collection were cruelly exposed and roundly mocked for your delectation? Well, that series sparked a call-to-arms for readers to send in examples of terrible targets, mad metrics and pants performance indicators, and to this day, I still receive a steady trickle of examples that make me wince.

This morning, one of my readers sent me a link to a news article entitled ‘Primary Schools Face Tougher Tests’, accompanied with incisive commentary consisting of just two short paragraphs. The article leads on the statement:

“Next year schools will need to have 65% of pupils achieving the expected levels
in English and maths, up from 60%”.

Cue agonised groans.

(Naturally, the schools will be ‘league-tabled’ to within an inch of their lives, and subject to intervention if the target is not achieved).

I’ll leave it to, er, ‘Martha’* (*not his real name) to share his observations…

Mike quote

I must admit the email made me chuckle, but there are some serious points here.

The traditional finger-in-the-air method of designating this 65% target is totally arbitrary. More importantly, the target does not provide a method for improving performance. It increases the likelihood of dysfunctional behaviour, gaming and all the entirely predictable outcomes associated with this most noxious tool of misguided performance management. Is anyone listening? I’m even starting to sound like a broken record to myself.

The fundamental assumption of the target-mongers is that test scores are entirely within the gift of teachers to control. Okay, so what should they do about the extent of social deprivation in their school catchment areas, or the proportion of pupils whose first language is not English? Also, despite the best efforts of teachers, not every child is going to be at exactly the same level when a snapshot of maths and English ability is taken at age 10 or 11 – children develop at different rates. Targets completely ignore such factors, even though they are likely to directly affect whether the targets are attained or not.

So, we end up with the depressing scenario where kids are shoved along a conveyor-belt model that produces young minds capable of doing well in tests, without necessearily enriching how they think and learn about the world around them. Schools resort to the battery farm methods of holding extra classes in ‘test techniques’ and almost daily practice tests in maths and English in the run up to the real tests. (Remember – these are primary school kids!) Parents evenings become dominated by forecasts about test results, rather than discussing the joy of learning and discovery that children should be experiencing. Kids come home feeling that they have failed because they’ve only been graded at level 4b instead of 4a, based on the results of the practice tests conducted on the target-driven production line.

league table wolf

This new 65% target, and others like it, can only ever achieve superficial short term ‘results’ – worse still, these ‘results’ might keep the ‘league table wolf’ from the door, but they come at the expense of what should be the happiest days of these boys’ and girls’ lives.

Someone needs to pay more attention in class!

About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
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6 Responses to Must Try Harder

  1. Orko says:

    I am a latecomer to the Systems Thinking party and thoroughly enjoy your posts. I would expect your workplace, like mine, is very Command and control orientated. Surely you must find yourself frustrated and “off message” much of the time? If so, how do you manage yourself as a Systems thinker in a C&C environment?

    • Hi, glad you like the blog. To answer your question I have to say that it isn’t always easy, but I’ve tended to find that by just doing it within your own sphere of influence often energises others, plus managers who still don’t get it tend to leave you to it on account of the good performance the methods generate.

  2. Jon says:

    A friend of mine has a child who’s not the sharpest knife in the draw but the child attends a private school. The school has for six years happily taken my friends money so his child could attend the school. Now the school are concerned that the child in question will not get the desired test scores so they’ve told my friend to remove his child from the school. Results are obviously more important than the child’s welfare.

  3. Pingback: Must Try Harder | SteveB's Politics & Economy Scoops |

  4. I get so frustrated with people who don’t get it! What is there to get? Do we want to deliver quality purposeful policing services, I believe we do. Systems Thinking provides a platform for real improvements but unless those with the responsibility of leading the service take a look at what is on offer there will be little progress. Perhaps a debate for the Strategic Command Course?
    First class again Simon what else can I say.

  5. Dave Hasney says:

    You last paragraph – “This new 65% target, and others like it, can only ever achieve superficial short term ’results’” – is the crux of the problems we face. Almost without exception processes are formulated (and continually ajusted) for the here and now. All designed to benefit the self-importance and perception of skills and abilities of those currently responsible for the management of those processess… Once again it’s all about ‘self’ and not ‘service’!

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