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Target setting – why it’s not the answer

Obsessing about goals doesn’t get you where you need to be – we need to invest in systems, instead

Alex Rawlings
by Alex Rawlings
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Outstanding Assessment for Primary English
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Almost every single teacher, up and down the country, will have sat in a target-setting meeting with a senior leader and come up with goals for their children (or be told them!).

And almost every single teacher, at some point, will let out a defeated sigh. That sigh often signifies the beginning of a year-long tale about quick-fixes, curriculum compromises and a teacher with a sense of inevitable failure that can all too often prove self-fulfilling. 

While the senior leader waffles on about ‘95 per cent being an ambitious but achievable target’ and making ‘accelerated progress for the majority of pupils’, you’re sat there glaring at two names on your class list that you think just don’t stand a chance.

Your chest tightens, and in an instant you’re capped at a target-missing 93 per cent. Failure is a guarantee. 

You see this happen everywhere in schools.  

Substitute ‘target-setting meeting’ with ‘performance management’ or ‘HT appraisal’ or ‘IEP targets’ or ‘Phonics Screening’ or ‘SMART targets’ (shudder).

The list goes on, as does the sighing.  

Performance targets

By the end of the academic year, your class will have either made it, or they won’t. You will be a success or a failure.

And even if you are successful, that feeling is only fleeting. You might be very proud of yourself for a short while (and so you should be!) but what’s next?

Another target followed by another year-long wait to determine your success.

And if you fail, I imagine you will enter your next target-setting meeting with a renewed sense of complete cynicism, defeatism and all the other ‘isms’.

Just how you want to start the year – with another cursed aim! 

Goal-orientated people spend a significant amount of their time failing. In fact, they are continuously failing until the moment they aren’t.

And this non-failure is only momentary until the cycle starts again. As cartoonist Scott Adams says, “Losers have goals. Winners have systems.” 

Goals can only set the trajectory of travel; they can’t actually get you there. But a well-thought-out and implemented system can.

For instance, you can have a target to achieve a 90 per cent phonics pass rate (goal). That’s great. But it isn’t going to get you where you want to be.

Providing high-quality phonics provision (system) is what will.

Likewise, expecting a headteacher to achieve 70 per cent outstanding teaching (goal) isn’t going to make it so. Investing in incredibly effective CPD and coaching (system) just might, though. 

Making systems work

Systems-orientated leaders spread accountability so thin that their team barely feels the weight.

Those leaders commit time to collaborating with staff on an agreed system of teaching provision, rather than endless conversations about data.

So, if the class isn’t attaining as highly as hoped, you aren’t determined to have failed. How could you? You’ve deployed the agreed system!  

The focus is now on the systems and everyone is accountable for them, whether it is the way you expect children to line up in the morning, or how you intervene to support struggling learners.

If something doesn’t go quite as it should, the conversation isn’t about you, as a teacher, it is about the system and your experience of it, and how senior leaders can understand that better: was CPD effective? Do we need to rethink our approach?

It’s not a panicked conversation about why your class is seven per cent away from their target. 

This isn’t to say target-setting is futile; it guides the direction for the school. You’ve got to know where you’re going.

But goals restrict growth and force short-term thinking. They don’t allow you to reflect and get better.

Systems do, because they work daily, rather than just that beginning-of-the-year meeting. Systems challenge you and they need your attention and focus. 

In the last three years, I haven’t set a single attainment target for any of our children, nor have I linked target grades to staff appraisal.

Do I think our children have learned less as a result? Absolutely not.  

Target-setting shackles you to a dichotomy of success or failure. 

Systems set you free. 

Invest in your systems. You will breathe more easily. I promise. 

Alex Rawlings is a headteacher at Quarry Bank Primary School, in Dudley. He has worked as a senior leader in primary schools for nearly 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @MrARawlings

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