Why target grades miss the mark

I would be very surprised if there were many people in the room not familiar with stickers like the ones up on this board. Target grades are so embedded in our schools, so deeply entwined in educational DNA that we have come to take them for granted. I hate them and if I had my way we would stop using them right now. Today I hope to convince you that I am right. I am going to explain where they came from, how some helpful thinking was corrupted and the role unthinking inspectorates played in embedding them in schools. I will go on to explain, using research around goal setting, why they are likely to be at best a waste of time and at worst, actually damaging to learning. I will finish by sketching out a very rough proposal of what we might replace them with, which draws heavily on the work of Michael Fordham and Daisy Christodoulu.


When I left the UK in 2006 there were no Target Grades.  When I returned five years later they were everywhere, screaming out from SIMS and multi-coloured Excel spreadsheets, and shouting mindlessly on the front of exercise books

Their greasy fingerprints were all over lessons too.  Outcomes, written carefully on every board, were often tagged with the different target grades of students in that particular class.  For example in history, my subject:

Describe the Night of the Long Knives (C)

Explain the causes of the Night of the Long Knives (B)

Evaluate the significance of these causes (A).

The expectation was that, in the very best lessons, students should have individual target grades and given different tasks to do, multiplying planning by three.  This came as a particularly unpleasant shock. On a training day I heard a consultant ask “why should the higher ability start at the same point the lower ability do?” and saw people around me nodding in agreement. I was baffled. How could a student explain what caused the Night of the Long Knives if they didn’t know what happened in the first place? Describing the fire would only take a student with a C target a few minutes.  Should I just get them to repeat that in different ways until the end of the lesson?  Should I stop them moving onto explaining?”

I thought maybe I’d misunderstood and so anxious to catch up on what I’d missed while away, I read lots and asked lots of questions, but didn’t find the answers I got at all illuminating.

I learned that Target Grades were generated from tests children sat at the end of their primary education in English and Maths.  From an average of these three grades an acceptable level of progress had been decided upon, and this was used to set a target for other subjects.  The success of the child and, by association, their teachers and school, was assessed on whether they failed to meet, achieved or exceeded this target.

I found this simply mind boggling.  How could the average attainment of a child in two subjects be used to predict their attainment in completely different disciplines?  Most children I taught in Year 7 had never really studied history meaningfully but, as I understood it, I was supposed to assume that they were already as good at it as they were the subjects they had learned.  When I raised this I was told “just be glad you don’t teach music, art or PE.  At least in history they do read and write.”

I asked more questions and got myself even more confused.  Someone else told me that results of these KS2 tests were used as an assessment of the child’s intelligence and capacity to learn; if they had reached a certain standard in one subject it was assumed they could do so in others. To me this made no sense at all.  The KS2 tests tested aptitude in discrete subjects and weren’t designed to test intelligence.  The outcome could be the result of any one or combination of a huge number of variables of which intelligence was only one, including the ability of the teacher, the level of parental support and the degree to which a primary school taught directly to the test.  The assessments were not intelligence tests and I didn’t think they should be used as a general indicator of a child’s capacity to learn.


When I brought this up I got a different answer.  I was told that I had misunderstood and these tests were actually used to assess the level of different generic skills a child had reached.  Seeing English and Maths as the trunk of a tree with the other subjects as branches initially seemed quite neat.  In this conception, children had developed different generic competencies.  If a child could describe well in English, as demonstrated on their KS2 test, they would be able to describe well in history too.  This helped explain the very Bloom’s influenced learning outcomes that had also mushroomed while I was away.

I allowed myself to be satisfied with this for a while but something just did not fit quite right and nagged at me.  The first problem was that the various skills that students were assumed to have were very different in history to how they were in other subjects; what I regarded as a good descriptive paragraph was different to the sort of paragraph their English teacher wanted them to write.  While their English teacher might be overjoyed to hear Elizabeth’s dress described as a ‘glowing rainbow waterfall’, such linguistic extravagance had me reaching for the sick bucket. It seemed it was also assumed that a child who wrote good historical descriptions of one thing should be able to do so on something they had never learned about before too. The most important part of my subject of all, knowledge, barely got a look in – put simply, knowing more did not seem to be regarded as making progress.

This had led to generic ‘skill’s becoming something of a red herring as the importance of knowledge was downplayed and vague, subjective and undefinable ‘skills’ became goals in themselves.



This approach to differentiation, based on target grades, continues to cause big problems in history teaching.  In a recently blogged about lesson I saw, judged highly by Ofsted according to the blogger, students were given one of three different versions of a worksheet according to their target grade.  Each child was told they could choose a worksheet that was aimed higher than their target but not lower.

This just doesn’t make any sense.  If a student is capable of doing work, then surely they should do it. Allowing them to choose exposes an important flaw in lessons that use this approach.  Even if this model were effective in supporting progress from different starting points, by its very nature it can never close gaps between students; higher ability students do harder work and learn more, lower ability do easier work and learn less.  In classrooms and schools that work like this the weak can’t ever hope to catch up with the strong, as gaps between students are consolidated and never close.

Target grades also wreak havoc at KS4 where they can easily result in teachers focusing on the wrong things, when they are inappropriately combined with mark schemes.  A scheme for an old style 8 mark question may say that students can get 6 marks for a one sided argument.  It may appear logical to translate this to a ‘B,’ and by doing so assume that a good target to set for a student with a ‘B’ grade target would be to “either agree or disagree with an interpretation and support with evidence.”   But that 6/8 does not mean a ‘B’.  It means 6 out of 8 on a paper carrying over 80 marks, which in itself holds only 50% of the total.  A quick look through the past exam scripts of my students show what a dangerous misconception this is.  Of all my students who have got ‘Cs’, hardly any have achieved the percentile equivalent of a ‘C’ consistently on every question. In almost every case, they’ve got very high marks on some questions and less than half on others.  The problem was not that they hadn’t grasped a ‘B’ grade ‘skill’ as assumed by the target system, but that they had inconsistent knowledge over the breadth of the course.  The target for these children should have been more revision, not teaching them to meet self-limiting criteria.  If a child is capable of getting full marks on one question, then they are capable of doing the same on all of them, which makes the idea of a generic or skills based target grade still more absurd.

Problems surrounding subjects outside Maths and English have often led to terribly meaningless target setting with action points often vague, non-specific and completely unhelpful.  In history, I’ve seen ‘describe in more detail,’ ‘explain your points’ and ‘analyse the sources you use,’ which, while they may satisfy a school’s marking and reporting policy, are all pretty meaningless.

This system casts a shadow half a decade long.  In “Making Good Progress” Daisy Christodoulou points out that teachers often unwittingly underscore disadvantaged children and it is plausible that something similar happens as a result of averaged KS2 scores.  Less is expected of a child who performs comparatively poorly in their KS2 tests, for whatever reason, than of one who performs well. They are generated a lower target grade, likely to be put in lower sets and typically given easier work to do. It is worth pausing for a moment think through the implications of this; many of us in this room will rail against grammar schools and increased selection, as I do. But if we are putting students in different classes by their KS2 test score aren’t we, at least to some degree, doing this already?


Teachers working with subjective mark schemes suffering cognitive overload may unconsciously look for short-cuts when grading work.  A target grade provides this short cut, and means they may be more likely to give lower grades to students with lower KS2 data even if the work is of the same standard as that produced by a child with a higher KS2 test score. If the child wasn’t really low ability to begin with they can soon become so as they internalise the message that they aren’t one of the smart kids, drop further behind and become demoralised. The effect of having low expectations, for whatever reasons, was extensively studied by Rosthental and Jacobson in the 1960s and, while their work has admittedly come in for some robust critique, does provide some evidence that using data to form targets and sharing them with staff may well have the unintended consequence of lowering expectations.


JL Austin’s work around the transformative effect of language gives a compelling explanation as to why this might happen.  Austin finds that there are many things that people say that don’t just describe the world but change it. For example, in a Church of England marriage ceremony when a vicar says “I now pronounce you man and wife” they aren’t simply describing something that exists but altering reality itself.  We can extend his insight beyond just what people say to things, like the KS2 tests. Those that advocate for these exams and scores might well say that they know that they are intending to change reality. They might say that this is the point. However, the issue is the mismatch between reality that is described in the test and its performativity. It is here that we must be especially careful. While it might be argued that these grades are appropriate for the subjects in which the child actually took tests (Maths and English), clearly we are on much shakier ground when we start using this non-specific data to guide the teaching of students in other subjects. We must be certain what we do has validity, a vicar announces the banns of marriage before the ceremony and so can be confident in its legitimacy. If the data on which targets are based is not legitimate then nor will any performative effects.

There will, of course, be those who seek to defend the policy both within their own schools and across England as a whole.  I anticipate the most common will be that they raise aspirations and so lead to faster progress and if there is convincing evidence they do result in better outcomes then the policy, for all its flaws, might be worth continuing with.

But there isn’t.

The evidence base on the impact of GCSE target grades based on KS2 data of any type is very scant indeed. Given how widespread it is and the impact it has on the day-to-day working lives of both students and their teachers, this is quite staggering.  Of course, this also makes it impossible to say it has no positive impact in individual contexts but given such a confused birth, which I will go into later, and the many problems I hope I have demonstrated it causes, we must do better than that.  In the lamentable lack of specific study, I have looked at examples of target setting in other domains to see if there is evidence of either positive or negative impact, while being acutely aware of the irony of this given the problems I’ve identified with non-specific target grades.

In the absence of research conducted in English schools I am indebted to Ryan Campbell for pointing me towards studies on the impact of Performance and Learning Goals on businesses.  While I am aware that there are issues in applying findings from one area to another, I am hopeful some inferences may be illuminating.


Goal-setting theory was originally conceived and developed in industrial/organizational psychology.  Studies by psychologists such as Locke and Latham identified two types of goal; Performance Goals and Learning Goals.  Performance goals are outcome orientated with typical examples being an increase in productivity or profits, or a reduction in wastage.  Learning goals are intended to improve the knowledge or skill of an individual or organisation. While learning goals may eventually contribute to a performance goal they are fundamentally different.  Target grades in English schools are, in effect, performance goals because they are measures of the standard reached across wide-ranging domains of disciplinary knowledge and offer no support in achieving them.

Studies by Locke, Latham, Seijts and others found that having specific, challenging performance goals did indeed lead to better performance than easy, vague ones.

This might appear to support the use of target grades, but these findings came with a number of important provisos.  In order for performance goals to be effective, those set them had to be personally committed, couldn’t feel that they conflicted with other goals they may have and had to have the ability to achieve them. Target grades do not meet any of these criteria.

Firstly, not all students set target grades will be committed to them, especially in subjects they dislike.  As teachers we hear this regularly, with “you only care about getting grades so the school looks good’ a depressingly familiar refrain.  This was most manifest a few years ago when re-sit results counted, which resulted in children happy with their original grade made to retake exams, in a depressing educational version of Groundhog Day, in order to reach targets that had been imposed on them.  The failure of children to buy in to the grade set for them may partially be because of a lack of consultation and, interestingly, early on the FFT recognised this and recommended that the data they provided be used as the basis for a conversation between parents, teachers and pupils, which then generated what was described as an ‘agreed expected grade.’  This approach could be criticised by saying those with low aspirations will set inappropriately low grades, but it is important to remember that any positive impact of setting challenging targets is negated if those involved are not committed to them.

It would probably not be fair to say that all, or indeed most, children see the achievement of a target grade as in conflict with other goals they may have.  That said, I do feel that some do see things this way.  Children from backgrounds in which academic success is neither common nor valued have other goals which are very important to them.  For example such children may derive immense and understandable satisfaction from being a caring sibling, a good footballer, a vivacious party-animal or a cheeky and popular local character.  Achieving good grades at school, and the work necessary, might be perceived to be in direct opposition to this; studying hard can mean not doing other things from which these children build self-worth.  Locke and Latham (2006) are clear on this in writing that performance goals can only be effective where there is “discontent with one’s present condition and the desire to attain an object or outcome.”  If children are content living in the world in which they do, target grades will be seen as at best an irrelevance, and at worst an implicit criticism of their values.  Of course, such issues don’t affect all children so perhaps it might be argued that it isn’t an argument against target grades in general, but just a suggestion they be applied to those who see no conflict between achieving them and their other aspirations.

My final concern surrounding target grades as performance goals is more fundamental.  Seijts and Latham find that performance goals can only be successful if those involved already have the knowledge and skills required to meet them.  They use the example of The American Pulpwood Association to illustrate this, which issued performance goals to pulpwood crews, resulting in increased attendance and productivity.  Crucially, this only worked because the loggers already had the knowledge and skills to effectively fell and process trees.  It was motivational because they had the basics down already.  Seijts and Latham explain this is because before the processes needed to perform well have been automated, mastering the required knowledge and skills will fully occupy cognitive resources – the imposition of an external performance goal is a dangerous distraction.  The implications for target grades are very clear; if children are guided to think about reaching a grade they don’t yet have the knowledge or skills required to reach, they will not be able to focus clearly on the steps they need to make to improve.[4]

This is damning to target grades.  Students, by definition, are novices in their fields of study and lack the knowledge and skills required to achieve the grades assigned to them.  Seijts and Latham couldn’t be more unequivocal on the consequences of this:


Seijts and Latham 

This might well make for uncomfortable reading.  Although concerned with businesses there are clear parallels in the manner in which target grades are assigned and the consequences of this.  I very recently heard of a school that issues detentions to students who fail to achieve their target grade in tests regardless of how hard they studied and am sure few teachers are unaware of instances of ‘bending the rules’ or even outright cheating on exams, coursework and controlled assessments.  Such instances, while of course not excusable, are certainly understandable; teachers are as much victims of the target grade system as their pupils are.  They too are not always given the means to attain their performance management goals, typically based on target grades, and they too can be punished when they fail.

Of course, good schools do provide children with the support to reach their targets but these very helpful ‘learning goals’ which I’d like to discuss in more detail later, are subverted by the performance based target grades that hang so distractingly and pointlessly over their heads.

These serious concerns got me wondering where this all began and why it became so widespread, so I did some digging.

Widespread target setting in English schools began with the Fischer Family Trust.  The Trust compiled a wide range of data, including prior attainment (not ability) and socio-economic variables to make statistical links between them and the outcomes of individuals and groups of students.  This information could be used by schools to assess how well their pupils were doing compared to children at other schools.  This could be extremely useful and powerful information, allowing schools to see when their expectations of cohorts a whole were too low.  Some schools began to use this information to set targets for individual pupils and some began sticking these targets to the front of their pupils’ exercise books to give them something to aim for.  Schools were in control as to what these should be and most, as a result of a ‘my expectations are higher than yours’ arms race, set targets at the very top end of what was statistically possible.  Many schools set targets that, should all students achieve them, would place the school in the top 5% of those in the country.

The Fischer Family Trust never advocated this.  Their original advice was that if schools and students used the data for individuals it should be as a starting point for discussions that would result in an agreed expected grade.  To understand how it turned into what it did we need to look at wider political factors.

School league tables and ranking played a significant role.  Schools in disadvantaged areas realised that the raw attainment of their students would not compare well to those in more affluent schools so sought a measure that would demonstrate their pupils had made progress from lower starting points.  FFT data offered this opportunity; a child who arrived in Year 7 on lower grades from a more socially disadvantaged background was less likely to get as high a grade as one who arrived on higher ones from a more advantaged one and it seemed fairer to judge them on the progress they’d made since joining the school and against other pupils with similar contexts.

Target Grades and data tracking became inseparably linked, enshrined in the Teacher Standards, and encoded in the very DNA of English schools.  After 2010 most schools stopped using FFT, which did try to recognise the effect of demographic on attainment, and began to form targets based purely on raw KS2 scores.  This was partially because the DFE, under Michael Gove’s well-intentioned instruction, got rid of Contextual Value Added (CVA), believing taking into account demographics meant accepting differentiated standards by advantage and the inevitable failure of the poor.  Many if not most schools now disregard context completely and simply add three or four levels to a child’s averaged KS2 data to make this their target. As well-meaning as this is, outside of English and Maths, it is wrongheaded because the point from which each child is supposed to be progressing has very little, if anything at all, to do with the subject they are studying.

Ofsted inspections embedded this.  While they have never officially required schools to share targets or put them on exercise books schools that did were praised and other schools, predictably, followed suit, creating an annual ceremony of cruelty in which children were divided into the clever and not clever in front of their peers, with a sticker placed on their books to remind them daily of which one they were.  Head Teachers working between 2008 and 2012 remember the practice spreading like a virus at local and national conferences as the idea that this was what Ofsted wanted took hold.   As Alex Ford pointed out in his important post on how inspection regimes promoted extensive marking, praise or condemnation from Ofsted can very quickly become an important driver of school policy even when there is no evidence that the policy is effective, especially for those schools struggling to improve outcomes and wanting to prove that their methods are the same as more successful ones to avoid criticism.

A short analysis of twenty of the most recent Ofsted Reports for schools I’ve either worked at or know reasonably well suggests this is still fairly common.  Of the twenty I looked at thirteen mentioned Target Grades explicitly.  In all these instances comments were approving, either praising their use or describing insufficiently challenging target grades as a reason for slow progress.  No Ofsted Reports questioned the use of Target Grades or the data on which they were based which, of course, would make it seem logical for SLTs in struggling schools to insist on their use.  Some reports included Target Grades in material on teacher appraisal and performance management.  One team even reported of one school that “teachers are aware they may not get a pay rise if students do not achieve their Target Grades.”  Such policies are likely to have really worrying consequences.  As I’ve already mentioned targets in school are no longer typically based on FFT data and are more commonly based on a simple numerical value (either 3 or 4 levels depending on the school) being added to each child’s mean KS2 score.  This means that the targets of students in a class in a socially disadvantaged area may actually be those achieved by only a very small percentage of children from similar demographics nationally.  To successfully meet their appraisal targets teachers at some schools have to achieve this with every one of the children in every one of their classes.  Failure is inevitable and such performance management systems has meant that employment at the most disadvantaged of England’s schools is perceived as a real career risk, which may well be making the recruitment and retention crisis more acute in the disadvantaged schools where good teachers and leaders are most needed.

How did we get here.png

So to summarise, the Fischer Family Trust gathered data on the grades students were statistically likely to get and schools turned these into targets for subjects students hadn’t get studied. Schools used FFT data to take into account context but in 2010 the DFE said they couldn’t, so instead schools started adding either 3 or 4L of progress to raw KS2 data.  This has generated targets that some students are statistically highly unlikely to ever achieve.  Ofsted didn’t tell anyone to put these target grades onto books or share them but somewhere, at sometime around 2008 a school did.  Inspectors reported approvingly on this policy and soon most schools were doing it.  Some schools have tied this to Performance Related Pay, which has made meeting appraisal targets all but impossible for some teachers.  If this sounds a confused mess it is because it is a confused mess.  Target Grades are an answer to a question nobody asked.  (12) The result was a decade long multi-vehicle wreck of a ‘policy’ which only happened because nobody was driving.


Despite all these issues, schools often continue to require teachers know the target of all the children in their classes and that children be able to parrot off these grades at the drop of a hat. While Ofsted were originally mainly to blame for this, SLTs must accept some responsibility and step up. We have created a generation of school leaders to which school management is so inseparably entwined with data tracking based on progress towards target grades that they honestly don’t know how to run a school without them. This is no excuse. Ofsted have now made it clear that student are not expected to know their target grades and that schools should pursue policies most beneficial to their pupils, and should not be preoccupied with worrying about ‘what Ofsted want.’ We should take them at their word and SLT should abandon any pretence that target grades can be defended and consign them to the educational dump, with VAK and brain gym, where they belong. The genie is out of the lamp now and refusing to defend the policy or worse, shutting it down by refusing to engage, will increasingly and quite rightly lead to anger, resentment and poor morale.

Ofsted can help. I’d like them to tell inspectors not to ask students or teachers for target grades, certainly outside Maths and English.  I’d like them to insist that inspection teams refrain from making comments on students making progress, or not making progress because of either the presence or absence of Target Grades, certainly outside Maths and English.  Schools should stop using KS2 data to set children outside subjects in which they took tests, I think they should stop using the achievement of Target Grades, outside English and Maths, as a way of directly assessing the effectiveness of teachers and that schools should not use them to make decisions around career and pay progression.


While I am of the firm belief that abandoning target grades would, at the very least, have no negative impact on the education of England’s children I am also pragmatic to know that it is unlikely to happen if nothing is put in place to replace them. It’s because of this I’d like to return to Learning Goals and link these to a very rough, embryonic idea for how we could perhaps move to a more sensible assessment and tracking system.

Learning Goals

I propose, humbly and with full knowledge that much thinking and critique is necessary, that we replace target grades with subject specific learning goals based on the knowledge organisers gaining traction in English schools.

The knowledge children need to know should be carefully curated and standardised at departmental level and, while informed by content required at GCSE, would not be solely based on it, to avoid the very real concerns Amanda Spielman spoke about recently. Standardised exams would be given at the end of each full term to test the degree to which this knowledge has been embedded. These exams would, as has been well articulated by Michael Fordham and Daisy Christodolou,, contain a range of assessment methods relevant to the subject area, but would not (perhaps should not) be in the same format each time. They would test content over a long period of time, not just on the material taught in the immediate weeks leading up to them.

School data tracking would not track progress against any grade at all, apart from perhaps in the latter stages of Year 11 when it might be appropriate, but on how much the child had improved. Progress could be tracked with a simple 1-3 number, representing improvement, stagnation or regression. This progress number would also take into account, especially in the most knowledge rich subjects, that the amount of material on which children are tested is continually growing, which actually means maintaining a score might actually mean improvement.

Learning targets set by teachers would be subject specific and based on discrete knowledge, not generic skills. For example, in my subject, history, a target might be “revise the reasons why there was a disputed succession to the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor” if this was an area on which a child had performed relatively poorly. The child could then be given the relevant knowledge organiser and a productive homework after the test would be to complete work on this. I am completely certain this would be more productive than the standard “describe features in more detail’ sort of nonsense which still seem to be very widespread.

In implementing such a system it would, of course, be very important to ensure that the vast majority of children do make progress and succeed, with careful thought given as to how to best support those that do not. This is not just necessary at an individual level but to the cohort as a whole; if a critical mass of children are not improving then this becomes normalised and students, perhaps more influenced by their peer group than anyone else, would lose motivation to do better.

I hope that the ethos this would create would be one in which continual improvement is expected and that an increasing body of knowledge has intrinsic value. Freeing children from having to think about how close or far away they are from a target grade, with all the other problems these have, would allow them to focus on learning for its own sake from the point at which they are at, which I think would be far more helpful in building intrinsic motivation than the system we struggle with at the moment.

As always, I am up for robust critique of what I have written here and am well aware that there is probably a huge amount I’m too uninformed to have even considered, the unknown unknowns, if you like. I’d be grateful to anyone who can constructively point out where I’ve gone wrong. Specifically, being very aware that much of the research I have used is not education-based I would very much welcome work on the impact of target grades in English schools, as I would more refined suggestions as to how, if we really must, we should record and track progress in a more meaningful way.

Can we be blunt? Target grades in their current form are a dangerous nonsense. They have already had far too long in the sun. It is time for them to go. Nobody, teacher, parent or child, will miss them.


One thought on “Why target grades miss the mark

  1. Pingback: My researchEd 2017 | the unconscious curriculum

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