First, the good news. Michael Gove has told me he will be replying in September to the questions I posed in my blog a few weeks ago. Hopefully we can generate some wider coverage for what is an important debate.
Today I want to pick up an another point raised by the Sir Richard Sykes review for the Conservatives of school and pupil assessment, which Michael briefed to the press at the weekend. The Conservatives intend to tighten up on assessment in a number of ways. More points will be allocated to pupils and schools for attainment in 'hard' topics like maths and physics than 'soft' subjects like sociology and media studies. Also, there will be no recognition of attainment in the new 14-19 diplomas, which should pretty much ensure they are killed off.
But the proposal that received most coverage, and was the subject of positive comments on this site, was to remove the focus on the number of secondary school pupils reaching the target of 5 or more A-C grade GCSEs, including Maths and English. There are two grounds for this reform. First, that the current system encourages school to focus undue resources on those just around the 5 A-C's borderline. Second, Michael has made clear that he thinks that in some subjects it is just too easy to get a 'C' grade (he has also said that in future those who want to become primary school teachers will be expected to get a 'B' grade rather than just a 'C' in maths).
I suspect Michael's critique is valid. There is no doubt that schools, especially thsoe worried about being branded 'failing' do obsess about the 5 A-Cs target. Also, I suspect there have been steps to make it possible for less able students to get a 'C' in subjects like maths as long as they make a reasonable effort.
However there are some other points worth bearing in mind. The existing target is not simply a creation of ministers. Way back in the day, when I was at school, pupils and schools were very focused on the criterion for being able to enter sixth form, which was then 4 A-C 'O' levels (for the record I just scraped through). The Government itself recognises the problem with the GCSE target so from next year it will move to a balance scorecard approach compressing all the data about schools (there is a lot of it) into a single A-E score. I am not sure it will work. Parents will still focus on the area of school performance they care most about, and going on to do A levels will continue to figure highly.
In fact, Labour was told very early on in its administration (when David Blunkett was Education Secretary as I recollect) that the target was skewing resources. The response was to create a new target to minimise the number of pupils leaving school with no qualifications at all. The problem was that no aspirational parents cares about this target and for any school to admit that any pupil leaves with no qualifications would be a PR disaster. So this new target achieved little traction.
If the Conservatives move to a system that favors absolute performance in hard subjects it too will have a skewing effect. More students will be encouraged to do 'hard' subjects even if they aren't very interested in them, but in fairness Michael may think that is a good thing. Moe problematic is the the likelihood that resources will be channeled to the most high achieving. This is simply because it is easier to get a bright pupil to attain a higher grade, or take an extra subject, than it is to achieve more with a less able child.
All targets have their drawbacks. I was reminded of this by what is happening in the police service. I was very much in favour when the Government announced that it is was moving to a single measure of policing; public satisfaction. After all, policing is the only service in which public satisfaction ratings actually decline after direct contact with the service. But I should have realised what would happen. Across England police forces are now spending hundreds of thousands of pounds employing consultants to advise them on what it is that drives public satisfaction. In this way a single national target quickly turns into multiple local targets, and resources get driven to those things that make us happier with the police even if they may not actually be the best way of ensuring law and order.
I believe public services need targets. Without them there are real problems about transparency, accountability and performance management. But all targets have their drawbacks. It is a matter of risk. The Conservatives clearly think the risk of more resources being channelled to the brightest is less worrying than that they are concentrated on those in the middle. Are they right?