Target Setting and Summit Fever


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In his excellent real-life account, ‘Into Thin Air’, American journalist, Jon Krakauer, recounts how in 1996 he was part of a tragic Everest expedition. Krakauer, though led by world-renowned expedition leaders and climbers, unveiled a catalogue of misfortune and missteps.

He retells a story of charismatic and overconfident guides under pressure to succeed, ignoring warning signs and exhibiting unwillingness to turn back within reach of the summit. A dangerous human traffic jam on Everest is all made fatal by a terrible storm and the perils of nighttime.

The villain in the piece is as much human error and ‘summit fever’ as the deadly storm.

‘Summit fever’ describes that collective urge to reach the mountain summit no matter what, even regardless of one’s own safety. In sight of one’s longed for target, good judgment is jettisoned.

Krakauer’s tale offers a useful warning sign for school leaders everywhere.

Since the advent of national league tables, in secondary schools across the country, the crude 5 A* to C statistic has near-singlehandly driven our very own secondary school ‘summit fever’. How many headteachers have lost their job because a year group failed to scale the heights of those that came before? How many teachers have been pushed toward burnout, many being driven out of the profession altogether, in the relentless pursuit of this narrow GCSE school target?

With such target-driven madness proving commonplace, teacher quality has become narrowly defined by the performance of the students in their GCSE class. Unsurprisingly, such demands lead to damaging practices that see our students suffer.

The Department for Education and OFQUAL has long been wise to the feverish ‘gaming’ that exists under our punitive accountability system. They have, seemingly, made some moves to remove the damaging effects of schools being held to account by a singular target.

From 2016, we will see the key measure of school performance shift from the 5 A* to C figure shift to the new Progress 8 measure, alongside other measures, like Attainment 8, and the percentage of students achieving the EBACC measure, which will also be taken into account.

Yet the new target of the school Progress 8 performance, although apparently broader and fairer, could easily cause the same damaging effects of its predecessor. Indeed, the measure still neglects important contextual factors and it favours schools with high ability intakes (as shown by the insightful analysis by the EduDataLab – see here).

Alongside this concern about Progress 8, there is a very real fear that creative subjects, like Art and Music, will be slowly eliminated from the curriculum to better meet the requirements of the new Progress 8 target.

It is crucial that the Department for Education, OFQUAL and OFSTED, better communicate to parents the new fleet of measures that determine school league table success in the coming years. Rather than pay sole attention to the hero schools who reach the summit of the Progress 8 table, we need to help people better understand real school success in all of its breadth and complexity.

But what can school leaders themselves do to avoid summit fever?

A good start would be to question our own rigid reliance on internal target setting and data. Schools can ensure that students still get to experience a broad and balanced diet of GCSEs, despite the undoubted pressures of external targets. We must also reject a curriculum designed to promote endless target-driven assessments, in the name of supposed school improvement, at the expense of actual learning.

School leaders and teachers need also to take care not to ignore the warning signs regarding target setting for our own students. For every student who is inspired by having a raft of A* targets (soon to be 8s and 9s), there are others who are lumped into endless revision sessions after school and on weekends because they are ‘failing’ to meet their targets. Evidence of a 200% increase in Childline counseling sessions specifically mentioning exam stress should give us pause to consider our target setting methods.

We have to be pragmatic in our response to external accountability pressures and know the narrative of our school’s data to fend off summit fever. By understanding the historic and future data trends of our school’s student outcomes (using the Education Endowment Foundation Families of School database is very useful for this end), we can fend off the obsession with on any single set of exam results. We can also survey the landscape for intelligence that cuts through any data-driven madness, like the Edudatalab’s article on ‘Seven things You Might Not Know About Your Schools’.

Each school leader naturally wants their students to scale the heights of success, but if our teachers and students are to survive and thrive on the journey, we need to take great care to exercise our best judgement.


(This article first appeared in the TES, February 2016)

3 thoughts on “Target Setting and Summit Fever”

  1. This is an important piece about losing sight and the human cost of it. However, I would take issue with the childline figures

    The figures from Childline are not what they appear to be – I did explore them in a blog at the time but essentially – the actual numbers and percentages are small, plus we don’t know how many of the calls were repeat calls from the same child. There is also a difference between those who rang in for that reason and those for whom it was an additional issue.
    I can’t link to it at the moment as my website is being constructed (again!).

    1. Alex Quigley

      Yes – fair enough. That sentence was wrapped with more explanation in an earlier draft and edited down. In this draft it lacks substance and overreaches, but it is what was published so I’ve stuck with it. I don’t imply causation, as I have no evidence, and I only state that we should be wary of creating damaging effects with explicit target setting. I take on board your criticism though.

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