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Double vision in the world of targets

I used to have an annual meeting with one of my bosses which had its own ritual and rhythms. The meetings were pretty much identical and known as the yearly review and target-setting. Bean-counting in plain language. We'd plod through the courses I was running, noting their retention, achievement and success rates.

We both knew we'd end up tacking another 5 per cent on to this year's numbers as a "target". But, first, everything had to be measured, quantified and firmly nailed down. Had I listed under "achievement" that no one in my classes had behaved anti-socially, gone to prison or fallen pregnant, my boss would have killed himself laughing before easing me towards the "situations vacant" columns.

We knew it was no longer 1991, and that vague liberal concepts such as broadening and maturing were no longer acceptable ways to measure students' progress. We also knew that it wasn't our fault - there was a direct line from government, passed on via the Learning and Skills Council, and relentlessly policed by Ofsted.

I may no longer be a part of it, but little has changed. That same obsession with numbers still rules, except when it suits ministers to see it otherwise. How else can you explain the following statement from a government spokesman? Commenting on research that suggested raising the staying-on age to 18 will do little to boost results or the economy, he declared: "We know that education is associated with a wide range of non- attainment benefits, which. are. important to take into account when assessing the benefits of compulsory participation. Research suggests that young people who participate between the ages of 16 and 18 are less likely to experience teenage pregnancy, behave anti-socially, be involved in crime or go to prison."

Does this mean a more enlightened policy on "success" will follow from the engine room in Whitehall. Don't hold your breath.

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