I had a short argument about targets last week. It made me feel quite nostalgic. I haven’t had one for years, not since the coalition promised to do away with them.
They haven’t of course, though many targets have gone. In fact, they have introduced new ones in the form of payment-by-results contracts, turbo-charged with money. But for some reason, the arguments stopped.
Maybe this is a sign that people are hankering a little after the old days, though they are not that different to today. Yes, I know that payment-by-results targets are supposed to be about ‘outcomes’ and old-fashioned targets are about ‘outputs’ – but, in practice, those are not very different, and equally perverting. Real outcomes are not susceptible to counting.
There is a great deal of evidence that targets achieved what they were trying to do - of course they made the targets higher - but I’ve come across almost no evidence that they made services better.
Nobody after the Mid Staffs Hospital furore could possibly believe they also provide accountability or transparency – only for the narrow stuff that is actually being counted.
Perhaps there is a nostalgia setting in for the good old-bad old days of Deliverology and my book The Tyranny of Numbers (both circa 2001).
I thought of all this opening my Evening Standard yesterday evening to read, to my great astonishment, an op-ed article about education which I completely agreed with. I don’t think this has ever happened before. I am more crotchetty about education than anything else.
It is by the headteacher of School 21 in Stratford, Peter Hyman. School 21 is a non-selective free school in Newham with pupils all the way from 4-18.
He argues, quite correctly, that we are getting increasingly good at organising schools as they were designed a century or so ago, and then he gives a brief portrait – though he doesn’t put it like this – of a target-driven school:
“A relentless focus on the basics, a boot-camp approach to behaviour management and massive intervention in Years 10 and 11 to convert every D grade into a C grade.”
There is the basic New Labour school design (though ironically, Hyman was an education advisor to Tony Blair). That is what targets did to our schools, and it is a credit to teachers that – despite this hollowing out – they are as good as they are. Not just targets either but best practice, approved process, standards and single bottom lines in the shape of league tables geared too narrowly.
But of course Hyman is right. We need to get with what we need now.
As he says, we need to teach character as well as facts (and I’m not as much against facts as the chattering classes would suggest I should be). We need to teach children to be resilient and articulate and creative.
But what really grabbed my attention was this sentence:
“We believe that schools should be small, so that no child falls through the cracks and everyone has an education tailored to their needs.”
That is absolutely right. Factory-scale schools have been the direction now for a generation. They are the prime underlying cause of the middle-class panic. They infect our education system with alienation and inflexible systems – they are the precise opposite of the way we should be going.
According to American educationalists, the reason why received wisdom originally suggested that schools should be big was after the panic in American circles int he late 1950s, when they believed that the Russian edge in the Space Race was down to big schools.
Later, it was so obviously in the interests of the salaries of senior teachers that they have continued growing.
The first challenge to it came from Roger Barker, whose 1964 book Big School, Small School, with his colleague Paul Gump, first revealed that – despite what you might expect – there were more activities outside the classroom in the smaller schools than there were in the bigger schools. There were more pupils involved in them in the smaller schools, between three and twenty times more in fact. He also found children were more tolerant of each other in small schools.
This was precisely the opposite of what the big school advocates had suggested: big schools were supposed to mean more choice and opportunity. It wasn’t so.
Nor was this a research anomaly. Most of research has been carried out in the United States, rather than the UK, but it consistently shows that small schools (300-800 pupils at secondary level) have better results, better behaviour, less truancy and vandalism and better relationships than bigger schools. They show better achievement by pupils from ethnic minorities and from very poor families.
More on this in my book The Human Element.
But small schools is a long way from where we are now. And thanks to the failure of successive administrations in London to plan for their policies to raise the population, we now have even bigger schools, squeezed onto tiny concrete sites, crammers in more than one sense.
It is another reason why we need to reform and embrace the free schools idea, as eminently Liberal – as long as they are knitted into local authorities alongside other schools.