Perpetual penality – thinking about targets with Mead and Foucault

I found myself among a group of school governors talking about targets. Every year in the UK school governors have a statutory obligation to set targets for levels of examination passes for pupils taking GCSE examinations at 16. The governors cannot set a target below last year’s – it must be the same or higher, even if the cohort on the point of taking their examinations is deemed to be weaker.

So should we set the target in line with what the statistical predictor (a figure derived from past performance) indicates is realistic, or should we set something more ambitious than that? Additionally, there might be other areas of teaching where we might set targets for ourselves even though we are not obliged to do so. This would look good during the next inspection, that we as a group of governors are prepared invent more ways of holding ourselves to account and scrutiny.

Just as annual setting of targets is something of a ritual, so too is the debate that follows.

From the proponents of targets there are a variety of reasons put forward to setting them high. Firstly there is the motivational argument: to choose an ambitious target over the lower statistical predictor ‘would send out a clear message’ to staff and students alike that the governing body is ambitious for them. The target, then, is considered to have symbolic value, and is a sign and representation of governor intent.  This in turn could motivate students to have high aspirations for themselves. Secondly, and closely related to the first, is the moral imperative for setting high targets: students will only survive in the modern world by getting high grades and we would be doing them a disservice not to aim for the very highest for and with them. And thirdly there is the natural law argument for setting targets. Targets might be flawed but actually there is no other way of having a properly focused discussion about the quality of education. Without the setting of targets hospitals would never have tackled waiting lists, higher education establishments would never have considered the widening participation agenda, and schools would never have tackled performance at GCSE. Unless we can produce a numerical target then conversations about teaching and learning tend towards the vacuous.

In previous posts we have noted the way in which targets are often taken up in groups as a cult value in G.H. Mead’s terms: there is a strong tendency to idealise what we might bring about by setting ‘ambitious’ targets, and to challenge the concept of targets is to risk exclusion by being portrayed as being against students achieving. When targets are taken up as cult, those who are not prepared to set a high target, or who argue against them are in danger of appearing as though they don’t care about the students in their school.  In previous posts we have also noted the strong contemporary influences of the North American positive psychology movement with its emphasis on individual self-belief and aspiring to the positive. These ideas are taken up in some contemporary management methods such as appreciative inquiry, where the suggestion is that enquiring into the good brings about the good. Student achievement, then can appear to hinge on positive self-belief. Doing well will depend on really, really wanting to do well, and not doing well can be understood as not having wanted success enough, irrespective of whether the targets which were set were realistic or the other social factors which determine doing well in school. Additionally, governors could be criticised for not creating a ‘culture’ of aspiration. Somehow, despite all our efforts, we may all be personally to blame.

Another way of thinking about targets is to notice their disciplinary power, both on us as a group of governors and more broadly in the education sector. In his book Discipline and Punish Foucault considered the way in which disciplinary techniques became pervasive in the army, the school, the hospital and the prison in the 17th and 18th centuries. They became ubiquitous alongside the surge in population, the growth of capitalism and the emergence of the state, and were contemporaneous with the establishment of the Enlightenment. Disciplinary techniques were required to govern and co-ordinate multiplicities. Foucault notes the irony that the Enlightenment which discovered and promoted human liberties, also coined disciplinary techniques.

The development of the disciplines marked a reversal of the political axis of individualisation from the Middle Ages, where individuality for example in a feudal society, became more apparent the more one had power and status. Conversely, in the 17th and 18th centuries new methods arose, what Foucault terms ‘a micro-economy of perpetual penality’, which calculated, examined, individualised and pathologised through constant supervision, scrutiny and documentation. They were a way of making even the lowly individual, the schoolchild, the hospital patient, the prisoner, transparent and visible. In James C Scott’s terms, they enable the ability to ‘see like a state’.

Through the proliferation of disciplinary techniques, we have entered into an age, he says, of infinite examination and compulsory objectification:

…as power becomes more anonymous and more functional, those on whom it is exercised tend to be more strongly individualised; it is exercised by surveillance rather than ceremonies, by observation rather than commemorative accounts, by comparative measures that have ‘norms’ as their reference rather than genealogies giving ancestors as points of reference; by ‘gaps’ rather than by deeds.

One of the starkest measures of the disciplinary society for Foucault was what he termed ‘panopticism’. This derives from Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon, a tower to be built in the centre of prisons where prison guards can observe without themselves being observed to the degree that prisoners assume they are being scrutinised all the time and start to modify their own behaviour. Disciplinary techniques are taken up as self-discipline. Foucault develops the idea of the Panopticon to start to sketch the growth of the pervasively disciplinary society where we are both the subjects and objects of power relations. The effects of power become constant, profound and permanent and produce ‘docile bodies’ oriented towards maximising our own utility; he suggests that we have come to live in a society permeated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms. These small, micro-techniques of power he describes as cellular, a machinery which is both immense and minute. We are subject to daily panopticisms which constantly count, judge and compare. The effect, he argues, is a kind of normalisation and isomorphism – institutions strive to become more like each other as we practise disciplinary power on ourselves and on each other.

Although the disciplines take a particular form and have a specific effect, Foucault argues that we should stop regarding power as a negative:

We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘’abstracts’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.

Just as disciplinary power produces individuals so it also produces ways of knowing the individual, what Foucault calls the human sciences of medicine, psychology and psychiatry. Power and knowledge are tightly coupled.

One way of understanding the discussion at the governors meeting, then, is as a manifestation of the effects of disciplinary power. We have come to the point where we do not need the government, or inspectors to impose targets on us: we now volunteer to impose our own targets on ourselves. It seems as though there is no other way of proceeding. They have become natural to us, the foundation of the way we can know ourselves, a concrete form of everyday morality. Hence the fear of what might happen if we tried to find another way of talking about what we are doing in school. Who knows what might unravel?



One thought on “Perpetual penality – thinking about targets with Mead and Foucault

  1. Pingback: Holding each other in mind – an alternative to targets | Reflexivepractice

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