Memorandum by Cornwall County Council
When we met in Bristol on 10 December, you invited
me to let you have my views on Target Setting. This letter, which
is the last I shall write as Director of Education, Arts &
Libraries in Cornwall, does this.
I start from the following premise
"Any fool could set a target. Sadly too
My thoughts can be best grouped under five main
1. Our overall aim must be to improve the
quality and value of public services.
Targets should assist that process and never
In themselves, targets should not distort resource
allegation, only measure it.
2. Quality and value will not improve unless
the behaviour of those delivering services, and the expectations
of those receiving them are changed for the good.
Therefore, any target which raises expectations
which cannot be fulfilled is by definition challenging at best
and at worst dangerous.
Any target which reduces the morale of those
delivering the service will also worsen rather than improve it,
but any target which stretches an individual because he or she
believes it to be achievable and contribute to better services
for the public will improve service.
3. Ministerial targets are, by definition,
top down. The purpose of these targets must therefore be to set
directions and priorities for change and by implication resource
allocations based on Government policy and Ministers understanding
of the public's wishes. So, for example, by setting targets in
Literacy and Numeracy but not in say Geography or History, Ministers
are signalling the importance of Literacy and Numeracy and the
priorities they expect them to be given by LEAs and schools. This
is perfectly laudable ad constructive.
Unless Ministers, or more precisely their officials,
can be certain the targets they set are SMART then they should
not set them.
SMART targets were originally invented by "the
one minute manager" (the precise book is Leadership and the
one minute manager). The definition of SMART is as follows: A
SMART target is one which is Specific, Measurable, Achievable,
Relevant, and Trackable. My criticisms of DFES over the last 18
months is that they have attempted to redefine Achievable as Aspirational.
I have come across no intellectual or research evidence to suggest
that this redefinition has any credence.
4. Production targets must be set so that
they change behaviour on the ground by the ordinary nurse, teacher
By definition, these are therefore bottom up
targets, which again should meet the same criteria to be SMART
Within the individual institution, whether that
be the school, the hospital, the LEA or whatever it is the job
of management to staff in a way which ensures that they are SMART
and properly stretching and do not distort resource allocation.
5. Targets should be comprehensive and not
partial because a partial basket of targets inevitably leads to
a misallocation of resources. The history of soviet Russia in
the 1930s is sufficient . . . to that. In the case of education,
over concentration on for example five A*-Cs at GCSE has, in some
schools led to an over concentration of time on marginal C-D students
at the expense of others around them.
Targets should therefore be sufficiently broadly
set to ensure that such misallocation does not take place.
However, when published, a league table approached
which concentrates on one or two of those must be avoided at all
costs because this results again in a misallocation of resources,
and the danger of morale falling or complacency arising where
press or management give too greater emphasis to one over now
interpretation. Again to use GCSE as an example, at the very least,
league tables should emphasise both the performance of schools
in achieving A*-Cs but also the performance in achieving A*-Gs
so that those pupils with lower intellectual ability are not forgotten
in a dash to top league tables on the old GCSE basis.
The upshot of this for me is that big target
setting requires a combination of top down and bottom up approaches.
The application of the SMART principles are not the redefinition
for beauraucratic convenience. Currently we do not have this.
Ministers, badly advised sometimes by officials, set global targets
which are all too often demotivating and not based in the reality
of behaviour and life on the ground. Those targets are then translated
down to middle men such as LEAs who are faced with the impossible
choice of either agreeing targets which they know will not be
achieved but in doing so gaining short term favour with the department
but long term displeasure when targets are not achieved. In the
meantime, the LEA is faced with the prospect of translating those
targets down further to individual schools knowing that as it
does so the targets are impossible and will not be achieved by
them. In doing so the favour it has attracted from the department
is matched appropriam from its schools which will accuse it of
either caving in cravingly or not understanding the reality of
life on the ground. The alternative is for the LEA to fail to
agree targets with the centre which is the sad position that I
have found myself in this year.
A far better way would be for Ministers to signal
their determination to improve Literacy, Numeracy, GCSE, A Level
or whatever performance and to discuss with local authorities
and schools as part of a three way discussion ways in which improvement
on the ground can take place. The department could and should
also have a legitimate role in benchmarking performance and particularly
improvement. But in doing so that should be based not on crude
analysis"you are not improving as fast as the fastest"but
on a realistic assessment of where individual LEAs and schools
start from and therefore how much progress they can sensibly make
over a specified period of time. The analogy I give you is this.
At the time of dictating this letter, Arsenal are top of the premiership
which is where they were last year at around this time. On DFES
measures, they have therefore made no improvement over the last
12 months where as Everton who now lie third were languishing
somewhere towards the bottom of the table 12 months ago. The DFES
approach would be to go to Arsenal and say that they are not making
the same progress as the fastest improving club in the league.
Nonsense isn't it?
I leave you with a quotation from Don McLean's
Perhaps they'll listen now"
I have been grateful to the Public Administration
Committee for listening to me and I hope that what I have said
has chimed with what others have.
I have copied this letter, which is the last
I shall write as Director of Education, Arts and Libraries in
Cornwall, to my Portfolio Holder, my Chief Executive and the respective
Chairs of the Cornwall Associations of Primary Heads, Secondary
Heads and School Governors, and in the last hope that they would
listen now to Professor David Hopkins of the Standards and Effectiveness
Unit at DFES and the less senior official we have had to deal
with over the last twelve months on this matter Stephen Crowne
in the same part of the department.
Director of Education, Arts and Libraries