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.
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. 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.’
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. 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.
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, 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’.  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…
[scribd id=329006537 key=key-uYaygfRRVtahkqZ0hzpD mode=scroll]
 Sir Michael Barber, The Learning Game, (Phoenix; New edition, 25 Sept. 1997)
 Ibid, p. 253
 Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Robinson, 2012)
 Mandy Swann et al, Learning Without Limits, (Open University Press, 1 April 2012), p. 4