A lifetime of target setting

One rainy day in year nine I arrived a little late to form time and discovered that my teacher had arrived early and begun an activity with the class. This was highly unusual. He was one of those old-school useless-but-wonderful types. Form time for us was a loose twenty minutes in which we chatted to whoever was next in the alphabetic seating plan before lessons started. I know the best teachers and leaders around today would decry that twenty minutes as a horrible waste of time, but I can’t help feeling sorry for its loss. Not every moment of every day needed to be measured and accounted for. Form time now is a fraught affair of hurried uniform checks, maths and English revision, money management, British values and all the bits and pieces that get dropped into the curriculum because someone stands up in parliament and says “schools should be teaching this.” It was during form time of year nine that I forged one of my most enduring friendships swapping science fiction books with the boy next to me. On this particular morning though, there would be no talk of time travel, the ethics of meat eating or evolution. I arrived to find a sheet of paper on my desk with three empty boxes on it.

“What’s this, Sir?” I asked.

“You need to write targets, Colin”

“What?” I asked the boy next to me.

“Don’t know what he means either.” He muttered.

Having overheard us, our form tutor explained,

“You have to think about what you could do better and write that down, and at the end of the year you’ll evaluate it on the back.”

This was my first encounter with setting myself targets. I did not know that I would eventually learn to write them as quickly, absently and uselessly as tying a tie.

“What happens if we don’t achieve them?” My friend asked.

“Nothing.” Replied our form tutor, candidly.

“What happens if we do achieve them?”


See, I told you he was wonderful.

I wrote: 1. Improve my handwriting 2. Revise more 3. Daydream less. Although I got better at two (several years later in university) I never made much progress on the other two points. Luckily, I never had to complete my evaluation either. Those first targets went the same way as all the rest that followed them. A drawer somewhere, and then the bin when the drawer space was needed for someone else’s targets.

This was my first experience of a practice that is now so widespread we can barely imagine what life was like before people regularly articulated what they thought other people might want them to want, as a sort of professional ritual. I became adept at writing the twaddle that was deemed acceptable. “I will practice using the accusative in German. I will revise trigonometry. I will read more than just science fiction.” In other words, I will be in school. In the first semester of university I had to write ‘personal development targets’ which included making new friends and trying new activities (ie, being in university). In my first job as a mortgage complaints handler I set myself targets which, apparently, my pay progression depended on meeting. It later transpired that nobody cared about them and promotion depended on being able to do the job. When my boss realised that I was competent, he changed my targets to ensure that I had already met them.

When I went into teaching and started a PGCE I discovered that I would now have to inflict target setting on other people. Indeed, given the amount of lecture time dedicated to this topic (as opposed to, say, behaviour management) it seemed it would be a central aspect of my role... with a difference. This time they would be meaningful. If I believed that writing targets had previously been a complete waste of time, paper and human spirit, I was right! How foolish we all were, laughed the lecturers... How foolish we were not to have used ‘SMART’ targets! Those were the bad old days. The Dark Ages. Education had moved on. This was the decade of the smart phones, smart cookers, smart children’s toys and now SMART targets, too. SMART targets would make a real impact on our students’ lives. Why? Because they were – Specific. Manageable? Achievable (I know that’s right). Realistic, or recognisable? Timely timed something about time...”


I never remembered what all the letters stood for because they were obviously just five words chosen to make the acronym ‘SMART’ and in practice were no different from what I first experienced in year nine. You just had to write more and jump through more linguistic hoops. It was no longer enough to say “I will revise more.” You had to say “I will revise for 10 minutes longer each day over the next month by maximising the efficiency of my time management skills in a blah blah blah you get the idea...” Bonus points if you could shoehorn the word ‘synergise’ in.

Of course, there can be great value in writing down our personal priorities and clarifying our thoughts on what is important to us. When I started this job, I set myself some goals for the end of the year. I kept them in a word document on my desktop and regularly reminded myself what I thought mattered when admin was cluttering my day. It helped keep me focussed on a manageable set of priorities. A bit like targets are meant to do. But the difference between that and the guff I wrote in my official appraisal is that it was private. It was not written to tick someone’s box. And that makes all the difference. One of my goals was to make sure staff were teaching the full lesson rather than finishing early, which was common. To write that on a formal document would have been inviting disaster. Another was to change the culture around equipment and have the students bring their own calculator. That looked too trivial for SLT, but it’s a battle we’re still fighting and it matters on so many levels: personal responsibility, smooth running lessons, not to mention actual performance in the exam.

The problem with making people write targets, whether they are SMART targets, SMARTER targets (yes, they exist), SMARTAA, CLEAR or even PURE targets is precisely that we are making them do it and looking over their shoulder at what they write. No matter what acronyms we come up with, the practice is empty unless a person is doing it honestly for themselves. If we wanted them to get something out of it, we’d tell them to do it privately, but of course that cannot be tracked and ticked off.

So, who are targets written for if they are not written for the employee or student? In the private sector they are for HR, who need to create the appearance they are constantly adding value to employees. In education they are written for SLT and the governors. “Do all the students have SMART targets?” someone will ask in a meeting. If the reply is yes, those present feel reassured that important conversations are happening and students know what they are supposed to be doing. But what they have actually ensured is that good lesson time is wasted measuring (inaccurately) whether or not lesson time is being put to good use. It’s one of those things, like collecting meaningless predicted grades, that makes people feel in control of the unknown. A better use of their time would be simply walking into classrooms, talking to lecturers and students and seeing for themselves what is happening.

NOTE: Some people are more versed than I in the history of SMART targets. Sam Shepherd sent me a piece he wrote on it which I found very interesting (you can find it here: https://samuelshep.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/whats-so-smart-about-targets-arguments-against/).