How to move from targets to principles in schools, by Graeme Duncan

Graeme Duncan

In another essay from our collection, Insights for A Better Way, Graeme Duncan explains how the Better Way proposition 'principles are better than targets' should be applied to schools to avoid the negative impact of high-stakes targets.

Education in England is becoming a game of high-stakes accountability, where school performance is being boiled down to single performance measures based on the progress of pupils.  And the impact of this is becoming clear; schools are reacting quickly to the high stakes incentives that this system creates. 

‘A forty per cent rise in permanent exclusions over the last three years is one result of high-stakes targets’

The curriculum is being tightened to focus on core subjects that will get the schools credit, to the cost of arts, humanities and languages in particular. Children who are unlikely to perform are finding themselves too often excluded from the mainstream system with a forty per cent rise in permanent exclusions over the last three years.[1] Teachers are increasingly leaving state funded schools before they reach retirement and the secondary school system can neither retain nor recruit enough teachers.[2] School environments are suffering across the country as a result.

This is all being done in the name of social mobility. But school choice used to mean parents could pursue different curricular opportunities for their children. That choice has been eroded and means the only differentiator is becoming performance, which will further drive the inequity in the system as history shows that high performing schools, even when in poorer areas, attract more and more affluent cohorts.

Whilst accountability is essential, this target-based approach runs counter to the principles for which many joined, or would join the teaching profession, and is fraught with perverse incentives. Combined with year-on-year real-term cuts in school funding, it is leading to a greatly reduced quality of experience for all involved.

The education sector has become obsessed by the ‘what’. What works, what targets have been achieved, what is the performance of the school etc. It has completely lost the sense of ‘why’ and ‘how’, which is where principles lie.

‘Principles are seen as a luxury that cannot be afforded’

As a collective impact charity focused in education, we too often see places where principles are seen as a luxury that cannot be afforded. Leaders under intense pressure are regularly betraying the principles that brought them into the job in the first place. They are paying a heavy price, but some children, particularly those being so regularly excluded from the mainstream system, are paying a far heavier price.

Moving from a target-based system to a more principles-led system would require a giant leap of trust in the teaching profession that is not frequently modelled by Ministers. There are four principles, generally used in collective impact approaches around the world, that I would suggest adopting.

‘Here are four principles that could replace targets’

1. Locally led: the idea of a one-size-fits-all version of education is a scary one. Local context can see huge variations in the employment prospects, wealth, and the experience of education in children's homes. Whilst there is no doubt a core of subjects such as English and Maths should be assessed strongly as they unlock all other subjects, local leaders, families and children need a greater say in the curriculum that the school offers and the culture by which it operates.   

2. Research informed, particularly in areas of disadvantage, where children will typically have less experience of education within their family to draw upon, and less ability to afford educational opportunity outside of school. Their schools just have to be more efficient in developing their capabilities and knowledge if they are to close the gap. The research base, although still nascent, and the principles by which effective practice should be implemented (identify need, design solutions based on evidence, deliver in a carefully monitored way, reflect on the outcomes and learning gain and repeat the process) need to be widely adopted to close the gap.

3. A collective approach: education has become very fragmented. I was involved in the launch with the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, of the chains of schools, which later become the academy chains. Their vision was simple - before too long 15-17 organisations would be running all the schools in the country as it was ridiculously fragmented that 140 local authorities ran schools as it stood. We've now passed 5,000 different organisations. The carve up of the sector has been very competitive, and any sense of the collective has waned. There are several local attempts to bring people back together but this needs to be expanded and better bring together ‘context knowledge’experts (local leaders, teachers, families and children) with ‘content knowledge’ experts (those specialist in helping schools adopt effective interventions targeted at specific needs).

4. Capacity building: the sector remains very low on capacity and attempts by to create a market for school led improvement in delivery is failing. Current and future leaders need to be developed to lead the transformation of the system through the development of principles such as those laid out here.

A targets based approach has led us to a place where we haven't enough teachers to fill classrooms, and when a school can be seen to deliver success against its single accountability measure by excluding non-performing pupils at a great cost to those pupils and society. Something has gone seriously, seriously wrong. 

The need to move towards a balance between accountability and principles is clear.

Graeme Duncan started his career as part of the first Teach First cohort in 2003, and has since worked in the beyond profit sector focusing on the issue of educational inequity. In 2015 he set up Right to Succeed, a collective impact charity focused on changing educational outcomes in areas of disadvantage.



[1] Making the Difference, Gill, Quilter-Pinner, Swift (2017) -

[2] Retaining and developing the teaching workforce, National Audit Office (2017) -