Targets: problem or solution?
I found the articles in reflect 12 - the special issue on CPD* - an interesting read. While some articles were depressingly suffused with the bureaucracy-ridden rhetoric of managerialism and the Skills agenda, others were refreshing illustrations of how routes to professionalism can indeed be learning- and teaching focused. John Sutter's piece 'Speaking from Within: Archaeological Perspectives' was the best example of this.
I was troubled, though, by JD Carpentieri's defence of targets in Skills for Life ('Teachers and Targets: A Tale of Knights and Knaves?'). Carpentieri maintains that, while some practitioners might find them distasteful, policy-makers and technocrats regard targets of all sorts as 'a necessary enabler, much like petrol in a car engine'.
Targets are, in Carpentieri's view, 'part of the bargain struck by government on the one hand and public sector professionals such as Skills for Life practitioners on the other ... a realistic arrangement'. However, targets can do immense damage to education.
An example drawn from current ESOL* practice will illustrate how target-setting can actually militate against learning. There is a conflict between, on the one hand, the need to provide appropriate courses for beginner ESOL learners and, on the other, managerial demands that government targets are met for the numbers of learners achieving qualifications.
Practitioners are increasingly compelled to focus on higher level qualification-bearing courses, and learners are under great pressure to demonstrate regular 'upward' progress through the qualifications framework. This has contributed to institutional cuts in vital, intensive, but unaccredited beginner ESOL and ESOL literacy classes, which in turn leaves huge numbers of adult migrants who are potential beginner ESOL learners unable to gain access to provision.
A target-driven culture can work against effective practice. The learning needs of Skills for Life learners are complex, multifaceted and often urgent, and simply do not lend themselves to the crude reductionism of 'targets'. Targets are the problem, not the solution.
Dr James Simpson University of Leeds
* See Glossary