Desperate measures

So, here you all are, standing in line, waiting. Then in come the managers. They're looking mean. And in the hands of each of them is an ugly-looking cudgel with a rusty nail sticking through it. "Brace yourselves, boys and girls," says the biggest and baddest of them, as they proceed up and down the line, making their selections.

Then it starts. A biff here and a whack there. Finally, they are standing next to you. You close your eyes, tense up and wait for the blow. Ouch! But hang on. That wasn't a belt round the ear like the one you got last year. That was more like a gentle pat on the head.

"That's right, sunshine," says the big bad one. "This time you've come up smelling of roses."

He shoves a printed list under your nose. It's headed "Success Rates". And there's your course and your name near the top, next to a nice big percentage figure, showing the impressive results your students achieved this year.

Ah, you think, didn't I do well? For a few moments you bask in the glory of your success - perhaps even enjoying the discomfiture of your colleagues whose turn it was to receive stick rather than carrot this time around.

But as you walk away, other thoughts come into your head. The first is that - for all the target-setting and action plans you were obliged to produce - you didn't actually do anything fundamentally different from last year when your results were somewhat worse. That is because you work with human beings rather than garden gnomes; there are variables that you just can't control, however competent you are.

The second thought revolves around what is actually meant by educational success. You have an odd, nagging doubt that perhaps it can't be weighed and measured in the way that current orthodoxy says it can.

If you are wise, you will keep these thoughts to yourself. The battle over what constitutes success in further education was lost long ago, as it was in most other areas of teaching. To suggest that elements of student achievement cannot be found in charts, tables and spreadsheets is to risk having your sanity called into question.

You arrive back at your desk and open your emails. One has arrived from Amelie, a student who left two years ago. She certainly wasn't much of a success, was she? Yes, she scraped through her course, and yes, she went on to university, but she was a bright kid who could have done a lot better. So not much "value added" there.

But then you stop and remember her chaotic personal life. Her drug-hazed weekends and her repeated promises, served up with a smile every Monday morning, that she would "deliver tomorrow".

She has passed her first two years at university, she says, and is hanging on in there - partly because of what she describes as the "inspiration" provided by you and your colleagues. She still remembers the way that you all showed such belief in her. And then, heretical though it may be, you just can't help but think perhaps Amelie was a success after all.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London

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