Target setting fails education
For the past 11 years that I have been a teacher I have felt frustrated and compromised by the limitations of the professional framework of my chosen vocation. The education system should exist to benefit children and must, necessarily, support teachers yet, in my opinion, it fails to do either satisfactorily.
A soulless ideology
The main reason for its shortcomings comes down to the current practice and culture of target setting. The stifling effects of this soulless ideology have worked their way into almost every aspect of school life. Everything that can be measured is recorded and analysed.
Predictions are drawn and often taken more seriously than they deserve to be. I have no desire to predict how well a student should be doing from looking at tables of data, I want to see how well they can do given the best teaching that I can manage and this comes down to caring for the needs of individuals in my classes.
Test and examination scores dominate in this culture because they are the easiest to record. This has led to an obsession with assessment, which in turn has led to students (and teachers) feeling stressed and pressurised. A school has to use data to predict what percentage of a year group will pass their exams above a certain standard. This is supposed to ensure that schools do their best for the students in their care.
Teachers respond to this pressure by 'teaching to the test'. The syllabus is followed closely, practical work is squeezed out and too much of the lesson time is squandered talking about examination technique, revision and doing past papers.
Modular exam courses are becoming increasingly popular because they allow students to gain higher grades by studying only one section of the syllabus at a time. In science lessons at least, the school year has become a repeating cycle of learning, revision, test-paper practise and sitting the end-of-module multiple-choice tests.
It is also common practice today to invite students who are in danger of not getting a C grade (which adds to the school's exam success statistics) to extra revision classes while not including other students. And lazy students are being forced to complete coursework, with deadlines extended when work is not handed in on time.
This all makes for very uninspiring lessons with young people pressurised to gain devalued or even non-respected qualifications. I believe that it is in the best interests of our students that we allow them to fail when they deserve to. This is an important part of education: we do not prepare our students for employment or adult life by distorting reality for fear that our examination results might be judged unfavourable.
The quality of education has also been reduced by the current inspection regimes. While I believe that it is right that school inspectors exist to ensure that standards in our schools are high, the current Ofsted process is not constructive. A school inspection is often a stressful and negative experience for teachers and the preparation involved diverts obscene amounts of time away from planning good lessons and extra-curricular activities.
The inspection culture coupled with current teacher training courses enforce the view that there is a correct format for any lesson - a starter, a main activity and plenary with the 'aims of the lesson' clearly displayed. This is nonsense. Suggesting that there is a correct format for lessons is a disaster because many teachers will play safe, stick to the scheme of work and stop having good ideas tailored to suit the students in their classes.
Crucially, with pressure being placed upon teachers to operate in such a conformist way, there is little time for them to be creative and innovative. Chemistry students inevitably miss out on such activities as finding out about scientific research, meeting chemists and doing longer experiments than can be accomplished in the normal school day.
Let teachers teach
My criticisms lie with the system, with the policy makers and the inspectors. Chemistry teachers do excellent work despite these limitations and many are getting involved with invaluable outreach activities.
If the system would relax and stop measuring everything, and promote creativity and the less quantifiable human aspects of education teachers could work even more effectively. The education system should be designed for the benefit of the people it serves, not for the adults who control it. At present it is hampered by burdensome and deleterious factors that largely do the latter.
Nick Barker is a school teacher fellow in the department of chemistry at the University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL.