Tackling Underperformance

One of our more popular courses has been how to address under-performance – especially in UPS teachers. Over 1,000 headteachers attended this course and used the materials provided as a framework for addressing this problem in their schools. The intended outcome should always be an improvement in performance and the methods used should be objective, fair and sensitive. We will be uploading these course materials and templates for free. In the meantime if you would like to get a sneak peak then fill in your details below and we will email them to you as soon as they are ready.


How to Set Appraisal Targets

Advice on how to make sure you set the right targets and objectives for your staff


One of the most common searches on Google related to teacher development is for examples of teacher appraisal objectives and targets. This suggests that many people given the responsibility to create targets and objectives seek in inspiration for where to start with this process. A quick look at teacher forums quickly throws up many examples of disgruntled members of staff lamenting the quality or even absurdity of some of the targets they are set. There is a tendency to limit the thinking surrounding target-setting to a defined improvement target, e.g. x% of pupils will achieve y. This is not surprising given the lack of specific training around setting objectives given to middle and senior leaders in schools and colleges. Most schools have settled into a process of two to three objectives for members of staff. One of which links to a whole school development goal; one perhaps to a departmental target and finally one linked to individual professional development. The first two types of targes are sometimes set en-masse for the whole school staff. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach and in certain respects, it matches what theory and evidence tell us is effective in goal setting. However, problems arise when this is used as a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, a departmental target which is set for a newly qualified teacher and which is also set for a twenty-year veteran will not have the same impact on commitment and performance for each of those individuals.

The Rise of the S.M.A.R.T. objective

A shorthand approach is to set a S.M.A.R.T goal or objective. This way of writing targets was popularised by Peter Drucker, a management consultant and leader in the area of management education, who invented the concept of management by objectives. You will note that setting SMART objectives has become an almost universal diktat in education circles.

For those who have not come across the acronym, it originally stood for Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-Bound.

People often struggle with the Measurable element of a SMART objective, especially when dealing with abstract objectives and so the default objective appears to be the formulaic – “achieve an outcome of x%”.

It is important before writing any objective, goal or target that you consider the research over the past twenty years into Goal Theory which examines what motivates individuals to meet goals and their ability, and importantly their belief in their ability, to meet those goals. Without an understanding of goal motivation, you may end up writing an objective that never has a hope of being met. To create motivation and maintain that motivation over a period of time requires you to write the appropriate type of objective. Simply adhering to the SMART methodology is not a guarantee that you will have written an effective goal and it may actually have a negative impact on performance rather than a positive one.

Goal Theory

There has been a great deal of research undertaken into setting goals and objectives over the past twenty years in a number of different contexts led in large part by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham and it worth reading their paper: New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. It is an area of study that sits within psychology and considers motivation, satisfaction, effort and persistence. The terms goal, target and objectives can have different interpretations but for this purpose, I am going to consider the terms interchangeable.

Before setting any goals for a member of staff it is worth understanding this research and what influences whether a goal will be met. There is obviously no point in setting goals that have a low probability of being met or partly-met.

How do Targets affect performance?

Or to put it another way – why bother? Surely, if everybody was left to their own devices they could simply get on with the job of teaching without the workload and hassle and awkwardness of performance reviews and feedback. This is a pretty popular view amongst many professionals, not just teachers. However, the research tells us the following about goals:

  • They are directive; they direct attention and effort towards activities that are relevant to achieving the goal and away from irrelevant activities.
  • They are energising – high goals lead to greater effort.
  • They influence persistence – hard goals prolong effort
  • Goals lead to the discovery or use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies

When you consider these factors it is difficult to argue against setting goals, however, the justified retort is that in real-life they often don’t have these effects. The reason for this is that they are very often (perhaps in the majority of cases?) not set appropriately.

Why Goals Fail

If goals can have such a positive impact on the performance of an organisation it is important to get them right. These are the areas that have been identified by research:

  • setting a performance target when a specific, learning goal is required, e.g. setting a goal for an NQT to achieve a 25% improvement in reading scores rather than a goal to research how to improve reading scores.
  • not considering the achievability of the goal – i.e. the impact of moderators on the goal, e.g. the classroom cohort, resources, time etc.
  • not getting goal commitment
  • not conveying task knowledge – i.e. not helping the individual understand how to achieve the goal and/or providing the training and support to do so.
  • not providing feedback (see our guide on giving effective feedback)
  • not matching the goal to the performance measure (e.g. the objectives are not linked to the Teacher Standards)

The Core Properties of an Effective Target

  • Specificity and difficulty level
  • Goal effects at the individual, group and organisation levels
  • Proper use of learning versus performance targets
  • Mediators of goal effects.
  • Moderators of goal effects.
  • The effect of goal source (assigned vs self-set vs participatively set)

A Checklist for Setting Objectives and Targets

The following is a list of questions you should ask yourself before setting a goal for a member of staff.

Learning Goals vs Performance Targets

Staff at different stages of their career will often require different types of goals. Setting high-performance targets for a newly-qualified teacher may have a dispiriting effect on them and a negative effect on their performance and likely stay in the profession. Whereas, setting a hard performance target for a twenty-year veteran related to a problem area for the school focuses their time, ability and knowledge on helping to solve that organisational issue. This doesn’t mean that veteran teachers cannot still be set learning goals to develop their know-how and standards of practice.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does the employee need to acquire the skill or knowledge to perform this task?
  2. Does the employee have the ability level to meet the performance target?
  3. Is this a new or complex task for the employee?

Assessing the Level of Challenge

  1. this goal of high, moderate or easy difficulty?  Difficulty is measured as the probability of success. Research shows that the sweet spot appears to be a moderately hard goal.
  2. Is this goal at the limits of the individual’s ability?  (This should maximise both effort and performance according to Locke & Latham.)

Back to S.M.A.R.T

Specific vs. Do your Best

Is the goal specific (specific difficult goals lead to higher performance than do your best goals)? Specific refers to the goal level – there is an unambiguous level of attainment.


Is the goal, and progress towards it, measurable?


  • Can the employee use their existing ability to reach the goal?
  • What are the situational constraints to achieving this goal?


  • Is this task viewed as important by the employee?
  • What is the link between the individual’s personal career progression?
  • How does it fit with the school’s development plan, mission and vision?
  • Will achieving the goal affect the individual’s pay or promotion?

Challenge or a Threat

  • Will the employee see the goal as a challenge or a threat?

A sudden change in appraisal judgment leads to constructive dismissal

Bethnal Green and Shoreditch Education Trust v Dippenaar

Bethnal Green Academy was found to have unfairly dismissed a PE teacher with 13 years of experience whose teaching had been found to be consistently highly rated until the appointment of a new Head of Faculty/Director of Learning.

Ms Dippenaar’s performance had been reflected in an Ofsted inspection of the school and was supported by pupil progress data which were updated every six weeks. Her new Head of Faculty undertook teaching observations which drew negative assessments.

Whilst the Tribunal accepted that these were professional judgments and must be given considerable respect they must still be honestly and fairly reached. In this instance they found evidence that they had not met that standard and that they were “unexplained, stood in stark contrast to the previous record of the Claimant and to the views of an Ofsted inspector, and were not borne out by objective assessment of her pupils’ progress.

The Tribunal found that the teacher had been subjected to an unjustified capability process on an inadequate basis which seriously damaged the relationship of trust and confidence between Ms Dippenaar and the school.

Ms Dippenaar had effectively been managed out of the school and forced into resigning her post with the suspicion that this was due to the fact that she was at the upper end of the pay scale and could be replaced with a cheaper teacher. The Tribunal awarded her almost £110,000 in compensation.

On Appeal, the finding that Ms Dippenaar had been indirectly discriminated against because of her age was overturned as there was insufficient evidence to show that this was a practice within the school. The statistics on staff turnover were not sufficient neither was the testimony of two teachers who reported that there was a rumour amongst staff that more senior teachers were likely to be replaced by less senior, and hence, cheaper ones.

Learning Outcomes

  • ensure consistency from one set of observations to the next, especially where the appraiser has changed.  Do this by having a set framework which is objective and consistently applied.
  • Use different appraisers for lesson observations – studies show that accuracy improves with variety.
  • triangulate other forms of evidence, not just lesson observations – the latter is subjective by its nature whereas, for example, pupil progress data is more objective.
  • if you adopt a practice of pushing experienced teachers out in order to bring in cheaper younger teachers then you are open to a claim of direct or indirect age discrimination. Don’t use bogus capability proceedings to fix your budget problems.

For guidance on how to write effective performance targets for teachers and other staff, read our short guidance piece here.