I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about not publishing data targets to students and parents.
Matrix Data
One of the biggest differences between a students’ experience in school now compared to when I was at school in the 1970s is being told, as a student, your data targets. I had no idea what academic progress I was making when I was at school, I just knew I was trying hard and that I was doing fine.

When I took O levels I had no sense of which questions in the mathematics examination, for instance, were C grade or B grade or A grade. I just knew some were easy and some were harder, especially the ones near the end of the paper. The point is, I had no concept of an attainment ceiling, nor did I feel pressured to hit an aspirational target. I just wanted to do my best, whatever that might be.

The student data paradox means that academic targets are simultaneously dampening expectations for some students and exerting unnecessary pressure on others.

Peter Bratton was my head teacher when I worked at Hove Park School and he gave me Sir Michael Barber’s The Learning Game to read.[2] The passage which resonates with me as strongly now as it did then pertains to students’ so-called potential and that ‘somehow teachers know what this is’:

‘This seems to deny one of the central characteristics of humanity, which is that people often surprise you. They turn out to have qualities, talents and skills that no one, not even they themselves, believed they had…When I hear the phrase “full potential” in relation to a child, I shudder at the arrogance it implies.’[3]

How on earth do we know our own limits? We will all, at one time or another in our lives, find ourselves doing something remarkable beyond our own imagined capabilities.

Publishing targets or minimum expected grades for individual students can have, in my experience, two dangerous consequences. Too many students reach their targets and stop trying, claiming that ‘a grade B will do. I don’t need better than that’; others get stressed by aiming for an aspirational target they perceive to be beyond their reach and consequently give up. The latter is particularly damaging, in that under confident students with high target grades will often try less hard so that if they fail, they can claim that they knew they were going to fail because they did not try.

When my eldest was studying for his A levels there was a moment when he was going to give up trying. He hates to fail, and failing when you have given all you have to give is doubly humiliating. I told him that trying your hardest is the only courageous, honest approach to take to anything in life. My words must have slowly permeated his brain’s cortex’s frontal lobe, because within a day he was back in the library, studying hard. Phew…

I have always had severe doubts about target setting and its glass ceiling effect on students. Tom Bennett writes some great stuff, but I reckon the best thing of his I have ever read is a post entitled This engine runs on hope: why schools need to defy the destiny of data.[4] I would cite it all, but this line stands out for me… You know what my expectation of my children is? An A. For everyone. That’s the target I set myself, and if I don’t get it, well, I try again next year. I don’t cry into my coffee, I just try again.[5]
He also asks this question, ‘What does it even mean to ‘aim for a C, or a B’?’ It’s a great question. Think about it. Imagine you are a ‘grade C’ student, a ‘grade C’ human being. How would you feel?

Decades ago, when I taught the very bottom set Year 10 English GCSE, I had to return some of their coursework. These were students with grade D targets. They were not lower than grade D because grade D was the lowest target school policy allowed. Natalie said, ‘What does a G stand for?’ Lisa-Louise replied, without missing a beat, ‘Great!’ Dean chirped up, ‘I’ve got an F. That must mean Fantastic!’ The dark humour of their defence-mechanism was heart-breaking.

I have written at length elsewhere about Carol Dweck’s Mindset,[6] the idea that you either view intelligence as fixed, or you think we can grow our intelligence, through a combination of know-how and industry. We’re weaving the principles of Growth Mindset into every aspect of our school life. At our annual Prize Giving I present the Headteacher’s Growth Mindset Trophy. One year I awarded the trophy to Katie. Her teachers were delighted and they were unqualified in their praise for her. Barbara Lunn said, ‘In Year 10 Katie started GCSE with a C target. She was persistent, asking what she could do next, was her work good enough, could she stay behind at lunchtime to finish off or do more…the result of her efforts? An A* at GCSE!’

Another teacher, Anja Miller, said, ‘Katie has shown what can be achieved by sheer hard work and a constantly positive attitude’. Jane Burns summed it up when she said, ‘What impressed me about Katie, and what I remember when I think about her, is her lovely smile. It just says, “It might be hard, but I am not beaten and I am not giving up!”’

If Katie had believed the C grade target we set her for the end of Key Stage 4 was all she was capable of, she probably wouldn’t have taken A levels and gained two A* and two A grades. She wouldn’t have studied at the University of Leeds.
What irks me is that Katie secured her dazzling A level grades and her Russell Group university place in spite of her C grade GCSE target, a hopelessly inaccurate target which, but for Katie’s indomitable spirit, could easily have damaged her chances of examination success.

Once you start to think hard about what Dweck says you begin to question everything about what you do as a school leader. If Dweck is right – and in my personal experience I think she is – then setting students grades as targets is deeply flawed. The Subject Leaders of our two most successful A levels both fessed up to me, during a review of their department’s examination results, that they don’t look at students’ targets, they don’t consciously differentiate, they just teach to A* standard all of the time to all of the students.

On reflection, I cannot believe we have published estimated grades to students and parents for so many years. I wish we’d stopped long ago, or, like Dame Alison Peacock, never begun the dangerous practice. At the Wroxham School they focus on ‘learning (rather than simply attainment), nourished by a deep belief in the learning capacity of everybody’. [7] At the Wroxham School they have never used National Curriculum levels.

The idea that a school policy should put a cap on students’ outcomes seems so ridiculous; there are enough things which inhibit their progress, for goodness’ sake!

No, we have been liberated at Huntington by our decision not to inform students and parents of their target grades.
Our decision does not mean we will not track their progress using assessment data; rather we will use assessment data to enhance our teaching.

Those of us who learn at Huntington School do so in a culture of the possible. We do not believe that anyone can achieve anything; rather, we believe that with dedication, industry and know-how individuals can make progress beyond what anyone, including themselves, could have imagined.

And that should please students, parents and, of course, Sir Michael Barber.
As an EEF-IEE Research School we wouldn’t have made the decision to stop publishing data targets to students and parents without a paper justifying the decision

[1] http://schoolsweek.co.uk/childline-reveals-rise-in-exam-stress-counselling-sessions/
[2] Sir Michael Barber, The Learning Game, (Phoenix; New edition, 25 Sept. 1997)
[3] Ibid, p. 253
[4] http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/this-engine-runs-on-hope-why-schools.html
[5] Ibid
[6] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Robinson, 2012)
[7] Mandy Swann et al, Learning Without Limits, (Open University Press, 1 April 2012), p. 4

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This post has 28 Comments

  1. This was a brilliant refreshing well written blog. Thank you for sharing – wow. Chris Dyson HT Parklands Primary

  2. Excellent read and inspiring!
    One of the ideas behind Excellence in Cities was akin to your thoughts around human potential and the dangers of boxing young people into data ‘paradigms’. We had responsibility for the C/D borderlines; G&T and 1 A-G ‘cohorts’ all of whom were negatively affected by their defining descriptors! The solution became clear and it’s impact apparent. Track behind the scenes and focus on the learner and learning – motivation, effort and attitude. Simple and effective.
    Great stuff as usual sir. Best of luck!

  3. Great blog! As an MIS consultant I’ve waged many a campaign against misuse of data, but the use of FFT (or other) data generated targets is, in my opinion the most widespread and harmful practice in schools.
    As a follow up I’d be interested to know how you use targets and data internally for teachers’ performance management. Although it’s tricky to judge precisely my hunch is that the distorting effects of targets on pupil motivation can also operate on teachers. Do you think this can be issue? What steps do you take to counter it?

  4. Great blog! As an MIS consultant I’ve waged many a campaign against misuse of data, but the use of FFT (or other) data generated targets is, in my opinion the most widespread and harmful practice in schools.
    As a follow up I’d be interested to know how you use targets and data internally for teachers’ performance management. Although it’s tricky to judge precisely my hunch is that the distorting effects of targets on pupil motivation can also operate on teachers. Do you think this can be issue? What steps do you take to counter it?

  5. Thanks, John. In his Educational Psychology book, Bob Slavin comments “the most important implication of research on learning goals versus performance goals is that you should try to convince students that learning, rather than grades, is the purpose of academic work”. You might be interested in this collection of papers from the US Center on Education Policy – Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=405, which reviews much of the research in this area.

  6. The best school I worked at focused on effort rather than attainment. One third of the points available in the inter-house competition came from effort scores (1/3 sports and 1/3 performance). Bit old fashioned but it instilled a cooperative learning environment within the classroom with students keen to help each other and stretch themselves. I left when a new deputy head came in and introduced more “potential attainment targets” focus and the ethos just felt different

  7. Hope burns eternal ; what I like about generic chance graphs is that they show all what’s possible. What I like about pupil’s own aspirational grade is their indication of hope too. Target grades are both monstrous and arrogant, suggesting little to either teacher or pupil other than boxticking.

  8. Hi John – thanks for this
    Do you mind giving some insight about the sort of language you use when reporting progress? To what extent does the ‘background’ data about expectations of students influence decisions around intervention and support?

  9. Fantastic.
    Target grades cause more trouble than they are worth. They motivate some students but for more than half the students they have the two problems you described.
    The grade is trying to do too many things…
    Motivate students, inform parents, judge the teacher (and school). There is obviously going to be conflict here.
    If a headteacher can write this and a school not use them, then there is some hope.

  10. Please could you confirm then that Ofsted does not require target grades? Are you allowed to try this because you are a research school. I fear mist schools won’t drop them because they assume Ofsted require this type of system.

  11. I couldn’t agree more. What worries me is in primary schools across the land, pupils are being labelled with ‘working towards’, ‘below expected standard’ etc. When did this seep in? When I taught in Year 6, we rarely mentioned levels, as they were then. We kept them to ourselves and just asked the children to believe in themselves, work their hardest and see what they could achieve. They knew what they needed to do to improve and they achieved success. We are a growth mindset school and yet, the amount of anxiety amongst children nationally, including those in our own school, is on the rise. Is this is linked to being labeled and too much sharing?

    1. totally agree with you. Just help them to work to their potential is the best. Let students know they can achieve their best not the label that others set for them. They may reach higher or lower at a moment but if the put all their efforts and enjoy the process, that is enough.

  12. I cannot agree more that target grades are entirely counterproductive, both in limiting belief in the possible and in some cases adding unnecessary pressure where a target grade in moments might seem beyond reach. This is particularly the case for children with SENs who often learn in unconventional ways: for our boys, both with significant dyspraxia, seeing the whole picture, only evident at the end of a syllabus, was key to achievement. Grade predictions only undermined their confidence and gave no clue to what they would be capable of in final exams. We saw too much emphasis on fitting a mould and not enough on helping them become the best version of themselves they could be.

  13. How I wish I had you as my headteacher. The reason I left my last (private school) job was that we had a new SLT come in whose obsession was predicted grades: anything that did not serve these (and I mean anything) was sacrificed.
    Predicted grades came in and we were told to be optimistic. When the summer AS grades came out and teachers had been too optimistic, we were told to be realistic. Then, when our predicted grades came out (and we started being told to do predicted grades from year 7 onwards) and these were more realistic, we were told that these predicted grades were not good enough: SLT changed a large number of our grades, sometimes by up to three grades. We were then criticised as teachers when the students did not achieve the grades that we had never predicted that they would get, but SLT had.
    We spent most parents’ meetings telling parents that the predicted grades and target grades had nothing to do with us, and were generated by a computer.
    Those teachers whose methods of getting student confidence up (largely by avoiding making predictions or targets) really worked were soon shunted out, or left of their own accord. Student numbers dropped, and (as anyone would have predicted) so did grades.
    The only target that is worth having is the one the student makes for him or herself.

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