Culture of education targets does little to improve students' grades, but stresses out students and staff - ATL

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Press release
13 April 2014 by ATL Media Office
A targets and test culture does little to improve students' grades, progress or aspirations, but makes them afraid of failure, stressed, anxious and lowers their self-esteem, according to a survey by ATL.

A targets and test culture does little to improve students' grades, progress or aspirations, but makes them afraid of failure, stressed, anxious and lowers their self-esteem, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

More than half (53%) of teachers, lecturers and school and college heads said targets make students fear failure and also make them stressed. Forty-nine per cent said targets increase students' anxiety levels and 42% said they lower students' self-esteem.

Overall, school and college staff thought targets have a negative or very negative effect on students' enthusiasm for learning (40%), but make no impact on how hard students work (45%), their grades (44%), aspirations (44%) or progress (42%). However, 50% thought targets helped students focus on a goal.

In addition, over half (54%) of education staff thought targets have a negative or very negative effect on the quality of teaching, and nearly eight in ten (79%) thought they make it hard to teach a broad and balanced curriculum.

Education staff said the focus on targets affects the way they teach, with 60% saying it means they teach to the test and 36% making students spend as much time as possible practising tests. Students are also missing out on key skills such as creativity, communication skills and collaboration, with 58% of staff saying they have less time, and 26% no time, to encourage creativity, while 39% have less time to develop communication skills, and 29% say there is less or no collaborative work between students.

In addition, 38% of staff said they do less practical work with students, 37% said they spend less time teaching topics which won't be tested, while 27% don't teach non-test topics at all, and 42% said their students do no or fewer projects.

Anna, a secondary teacher in Peterborough, said: "Rigid target setting based on random factors and bad evidence does not raise educational standards and never will. Targets tend to lead to manipulation of grades and achievement."

An early years teacher in a school in Suffolk said: "Target setting has ruined our school. The senior management team spend hours in meetings poring over figures, there is huge conflict about levels, and we are spending so much time being directed to do interventions that we cannot fit in the teaching, or are diverting time to do nothing but chase targets."

A secondary teacher from Milton Keynes said: "Teachers and schools continually try to learn new ways of meeting targets which are actually impossible to achieve. Heads are scared of failing to reach targets and that anxiety is passed on to teachers. The schools with the best results are often those that have worked out how best to play the system."

A secondary teacher from the East Riding of Yorkshire said: "Pre-targets, my students left school as well-rounded individuals with skills that prepared them for the next stage of their lives; now they leave with a qualification."

However, many staff said having targets is not the problem; it is the fact that many targets are unrealistic or based on false information. Instead of being goals to aim for, targets have become tools for judging pupils, teachers and schools.

An assistant head in a primary school in Stockton on Tees said: "Targets imply that all children progress at the same rate every year irrespective of what's going on in their lives, and if they don't make the expected progress it's the teacher's fault. It's not particularly the targets at fault - it's what the government does with them!"

A secondary teacher in Buckinghamshire said: "GCSE targets are based on KS2 results and a computer programme that says what a child 'should' get, but make no allowance for the fact that we are working with teenagers, with whom there actually is no straight-line trajectory. The 'data' is inflexible and fails to take individual circumstances into account."

A teacher in North Yorkshire said: "Targets tend to come from external organisations. As a graduate statistician, in my opinion these targets are based on poor (or government-influenced) statistically flawed models - and are designed to be, essentially, unattainable."

And some teachers said the impact of targets varies depending on the pupil intake and school culture.

Elizabeth, a teacher in a secondary school in the south east, said: "In a no-blame, supportive environment with students who want to learn and do well, targets can be a positive motivational factor; in a school with students who have less value for education and the school has a culture of blame and pressure, targets have a horribly negative effect on both students and teachers - even good, hard-working teachers!"

The majority of staff (61%) said they think students' progress can be assessed and measured without using targets, with only 17% thinking targets are needed for this.

The targets culture is putting a huge and growing pressure on school and college staff, with 70% saying it puts a lot of pressure on them, 82% saying they are under more pressure than two years ago, 69% reporting an increase since the general election in May 2010, and 74% saying it is worse than 10 years ago.

For many staff, how the targets are set is hugely problematic. Four in 10 (40%) have no control over their targets and nearly five in 10 (49%) have little control. Only 36% said their targets are completely evidence-based, 28% said their targets are totally or mainly achievable, and 37% said their targets don't take any account of issues which affect how well students learn, such as special educational needs or the number of pupils on free school meals. Over five in 10 (55%) said their targets change during the year, and some said this happened after an Ofsted inspection.

Unsurprisingly, the pressure of trying to meet targets is affecting the health of education staff. More than two-thirds (69%) said their anxiety has increased, nearly two-thirds (64%) feel stressed, over a third (37%) have had problems sleeping, 18% have suffered depression, 16% felt physically ill and 12% have been to the doctor because of the impact of targets. Target pressure has also led nearly half (48%) to consider leaving teaching.

A secondary teacher in the North West said: "My last eight lessons have been graded as outstanding, but I am considering leaving to become a plumber because the focus has gone from teaching great lessons for the pupils to keeping Ofsted happy, CVA scores and targets."

Mary Bousted, general secretary at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "An over-emphasis on targets is having a hugely detrimental impact on children's education. In too many cases meeting the targets seems to be more important than children learning and gaining important knowledge and skills. Many teachers complain about being set unrealistic or fallacious targets which have little regard for the children they are teaching.

"Teachers have high aspirations and expectations for their pupils, but in many cases the targets are getting in the way, restricting what is taught and destroying children's enthusiasm for learning. We urge the government to think again and stop creating meaningless and damaging targets."

In March ATL surveyed 944 members working as teachers, lecturers, and heads in state-funded and independent schools, sixth form colleges and further education colleges in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

To view the full survey stats click here.

Notes to editors

  1. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 170,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.
  2. ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice.
  3. ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.