Ready, Aim, Fire!!! Hang on, which target am I aiming at again?

When I first started teaching 10 years ago I thought target setting seemed complicated. We were beholden to some mysterious group out there in the ether called the Fischer Family Trust. Colleagues in other schools would sagely discuss whether they used the “D” data or the “C” data and I would pretend I knew what was going on and how it was calculated. All I knew for certain was we used “the hardest one” and I believed that only about 20% of students nationwide reached this grade. Anyway, it had the effect of feeling like a true challenging target for students that often led to a genuinely useful grade for them. There were definitely issues, usually created by our own insistence in stretching the higher attaining students and occasionally changing targets mid way through the year but for a while all was settled…

Then along came the desire to link outcomes to levels of progress. We analysed students KS2 maths score and gave them a target of 3 levels from here, did the same for English and then used the best of the English grade or the average to calculate their targets in other subjects. These three level targets were decreed “GOOD” progress targets. We did the same for every subject but adding 4 levels and made these “OUTSTANDING”. Later the labels for these measures was changed, we “expected” 3 levels of progress, 4 remained “outstanding” and we added a 5 level target, for all students although only occasionally achieved by anyone outside the highest attainers, called “aspirational”. In broad terms these labels and targets work well. They’re clearly and explicitly linked to KS2 data. They don’t vary based on the last cohort or future cohorts and they’re easy for everyone to understand. Sure there were issues. The problem of the student expected to reach a grade D which looks fine for teacher and school on the 3 levels front but leaves the student with a grade that isn’t much use. Equally you have the challenge of the student targeting a grade B who reaches a level that assures them of a C and promptly switches off. This was an especially big problem in the old days of early entry opportunities where you would target your big hitter staff to the students most in need of the grade C and worry about the 3 levels after for anyone passing! Credit where it’s due, the DFE realised that they were essentially using a very blunt instrument to make judgments on the effectiveness of teachers, schools and therefore students .

So now we head to the thorny issue of progress 8. It certainly tackles the problems I have mentioned above. Now every student, in every lesson, in every subject really counts. No longer can the school worry about just reaching a grade C and the levels taking care of themselves, now we need effective teaching in every classroom to maximise the progress of every student. That has to be a good thing. We can certainly have the fun game of matching up a really higher attaining students with a really low attaining student and hope that their Progress 8 scores balance but how do we know what will create this balance as a school?

If progress is ultimately the big aim then how about we just give every student the  target of a grade A* (or 9 on the new GCSE’s) and have done with it? I’ve heard colleagues talk around this concept but without going quite so far, there is certainly a perverse kind of Occam’s razor logic to the idea. However, I feel strongly that the targets students should be working towards are achievable and sensible. It would also be easy for staff to think of a students a long way from theses targets as a lost cause an unworthy of any effort, clearly a very undesirable situation.

The likely school based P8 targets are to be standardised against recent years students achievement. It’s impossible to really now whether we as a school are on track for a positive or negative progress 8 score until the national results are available. Perhaps this is how it should be, it certainly encourages you to push all of the students all of the way and keep working until the bitter end. But in the end, for the current year 11 that meant the data was available in about February, useful maybe but perhaps about 4 and a half years too late…

The DFE transition matrices are subject specific related and pegged from a KS2 averaged score to use prior attainment data leading to indicate the percentage of students in this position who go on to achieve each grade. This lets schools make their own judgement (with a little ego involved comparing to national outcomes!) and set targets accordingly. There is certainly a lot to be said for this and with high aspirations from school leaders, some reflection on these matrices could lead to suitable targets. However, it is interesting to note that what we called “expected” (3 levels of progress for all) goes a long way out of the window with lower attaining students. For example only 14% of students entering with a KS2 level of 3c went on to reach a grade D, would we really want to set targets that relate such a low aspiration for our students? In direct relation to P8 it is worth noting that only students with a KS2 average of 4a would average a grade C or better (maths and english double weighting dependent) across GCSE results. So the use of the matrices for schools to set targets might well lead you to a point where students head merrily towards their progress 8 targets and come out with a suite of qualifications that doesn’t allow them the future they need. And we haven’t even started on the idea of students scoring a zero for an exam!

So i’m not sure yet what we’ll do, exactly how we’ll set our targets but I do know we’re thinking carefully about it. We’re determined to get a set of targets that lead to the students feeling motivated, engaged and able to achieve but also high enough to lead them towards their future steps. At the same time the need to achieve as a school remains and hopefully the two will go hand in hand. Whatever happens, the answer as so often is to teach the students well, from the outset and doggedly pursue the best outcome possible for every student in every lesson…

If you can help me with my thoughts on this, please get in touch in the comments here or through my twitter at @alexhughesnine

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4 thoughts on “Ready, Aim, Fire!!! Hang on, which target am I aiming at again?

  1. Interested to hear how this is developing for you. In September I take over as head in a school where little movement has been made towards resolving the issues you outline.

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