Bullseye! Target setting and target missing.

Or, a blog in which I get to say “Errr?” rather a lot!

Target setting is currently back at number one as the biggest cause of concern that I am hearing about from music teachers. Now, I am going to say upfront that I am not against target setting per se, but what I hear about from many music teachers is that what are being discussed are not targets, but something else entirely.

Let me explain. I’m not very good at darts, so imagine being told that I had one dart, and I had to hit to hit the bullseye, and that I would be in trouble if I didn’t, and, what’s more, the person telling me, let’s call that person “My-Teacher”, then if I don’t hit the bullseye My-Teacher will also be in trouble.


I throw the dart. I don’t hit the bullseye. I don’t even hit the dartboard! My-Teacher reassures me, and tells me that my target was based on my ability to drive a car, so not to worry. But secretly crying inside, My-Teacher now knows that they will be called to account with the spreadsheet-wrangler, who will “seek…desire…demand” (as G&S say in the Gondoliers!) an explanation. It’ll be My-Teacher’s fault I didn’t hit the bullseye, not mine. (Err…?)

End of metaphor, you’ll be pleased to hear!

So what’s going on in music lessons? Well, we know that the new GCSE for music is now up and running, and that it will be graded differently from before. I’ve blogged about some of these changes previously. But what I am hearing about now is that schools are somehow incorporating target grades for GCSE music as part of the reporting arrangements for KS3. Now, KS3 is not GCSE. KS3 is a different thing, OK, it comes before GCSE, but we know that 93% of kids nationally won’t go on to take it. Does this mean that those 93% should be awarded a U grade, as they will be, actually, ungraded through non-entry? No, that’d be daft! But not much dafter that what music teachers are being asked to do at present, which is, in essence:

  • Invent new GCSE criteria (sub-divided, in some cases) with only grades 2, 5 and 8 to go on.
  • Use these invented criteria to then invent a GCSE grade for KS3 kids
  • Invent ways in which kids can progress from one invented grade to the next, preferably in an invented straight line
  • Ignore that the invented grade for a unit on Songwriting, which has very little to do with the unit on the Viennese Waltz which follows it, must nonetheless show invented progression
  • Invent ways of ‘tracking’ the invented grades
  • Prove to the school data-wrangler that all these inventions are statistically valid
  • Be prepared to have the music inventions compared with Maths, English, etc
  • Put the invented grade system into practice, even though KS3 music is on a rota, with long periods where the kids don’t do music, but must still show progress (ie more invention required!)

Put like that it sounds silly doesn’t it? Well, yes, but, reductio ad absurdum, is what many music teachers seem to be being asked to do. When Robin Hammerton was Head Honcho for Ofsted music he wrote in a blog here:

As National Curriculum levels disappear, I’d ask you respectfully not to replace with another set of numbers

Err…? So, what is actually happening is what he warned against!

And then we have these observations from the OCR exam board here:

There’s a really simple reason why there are no grade boundaries for the new assessments: nobody will know until students have sat the first exams in each subject. This is because of the way that grade boundaries will be set on the new qualifications, which will ensure that approximately the same percentage of students will get a grade 7 and above as currently get a grade A and above, and similarly for grade 4 and grade C, and grade 1 and grade G. 

And this:

Ofqual has produced some grade descriptors for the new GCSEs, to be used as a guide for teachers. However, it is worth remembering that the first awards will be driven by statistics, so nobody knows for sure exactly what performance at each grade will look like until the first assessments have been sat! 


What the OCR seem to be saying is that predictions can’t be made. Well, fair enough, statistically speaking. Try that argument with your school data-wrangler, though, and see what they say? (!)

In the meantime, invention is taking place all over the place as schools require more and more accountability of their teachers!

All of this reminds me of Campbell’s law, which I have written about many times before:

 The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor

But back to the targets. I said the dartboard target was derived from my ability to drive a car, which clearly has nothing to do with throwing a dart. Yet in music education we are provided with statistical targets based on Maths and English results from the Primary School. Again, I say, Errr….?

So, do these conversations make sense:

“You can do long division, clearly you should be able to play the guitar!”


 “You know what a fronted adverbial is, clearly you can sing in tune”


So, we have a system of accountability based on so many levels of invention that the whole thing is in danger of collapse.

No wonder so many teachers are off down the pub to play darts!


About drfautley

Professor Education at Birmingham City University, UK.
This entry was posted in Assessment, GCSE, Grading, KS3, Music Education, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bullseye! Target setting and target missing.

  1. terryloane says:

    I think your post, Martin, is a brilliant and vivid description of the nonsensical position in which the target and data-fetish cultures have placed school music teachers. (Actually I think it is the same for teachers of other subjects, but that is not the point here.) You suggest that the current demands on music teachers in terms of assessing and describing pupil’s musical achievements are (to use your own word) “daft”. I agree, but I think we must go even further. What you describe in your post provides evidence that the blinkered emphasis on reductionist criteria and targets has been going on for so long that it has now deprived schools, teachers, pupils and parents of any alternative schema, any alternative mode of conceiving human capability.

    So let’s see if we can start again from first principles. We know that as young people move towards their teenage years their musical experiences, musical interests, musical capabilities and musical ambitions vary hugely. So it is worse than ‘daft’, it is meaningless, to imagine that we can ever use any finite set of pre-existing linear criteria/grades to assess and describe what they have done and can do musically at KS3. (And, as you point out, these linear measures don’t exist anyway, and even an Ofsted inspector has acknowledged that we need to move away from sets of numbers.) The answer surely is to move towards what one might call “post hoc assessment”. (I personally prefer to talk of “post hoc assessing and reporting” as I never normally use the word assessment because its meaning has become so corrupted – but I will gloss over that issue for now.) With post hoc assessment the criteria are not specified before the event, but arise as a result of the nature of individual or group learning. I think I have written before on your blog about two obvious examples: the first movement of Beethoven’s third symphony and the Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper’ LP could not be meaningfully assessed on the basis of any criteria that existed before these works were created. Yet this is also true to some extent for all acts of musical creation. Any attempt on the part of the teacher to constrain musical creativity by pre-specifying the criteria that must be met is both ‘daft’ (to use your word again) and, I believe, immoral. We need to learn to accept that the criteria on which we judge any act of musical creation are, in the words of Williams et al (2011), “unpredictable but retrospectively coherent”. It is perhaps worth quoting their sentence in full: “Since emergent learning is unpredictable but retrospectively coherent, we cannot determine in advance what will happen, but we can make sense of it after the event.” (http://bit.ly/2jfUPKO)

    I believe that moving to post hoc assessing and reporting has to be the way forward. I can see no other way out of the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ morass you have so eloquently and accurately described, Martin. A move in this direction would certainly be worth going off down the pub to celebrate – with or without a game of darts:-)

  2. drfautley says:

    Thanks Terry. There is so much to worry about, but I believe we do need to try to disentangle assessment from the mess it has got into!

  3. Jayne says:

    You couldn’t possibly make up a story that is quite so stupid, therefore it must be true!!!

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