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Good news for the DfES: ignorance is cool

If, like me, you have failed to "thrive on chaos", or spent too much time in a fruitless "search for excellence" from a base of irremediable mediocrity, you will know that Tom Peters has a lot to answer for. But we all have a weakness for gurus and so it was that I set out for Manchester to hear his latest views on models of leadership for chief executives.

I knew something was wrong the minute he walked on stage. He looked like he had a paunch as big as a Space-hopper, and his trousers finished way short of his shoes. A man of his eminence who can't manage his own waistline and basic wardrobe may not have much to teach us, I thought.

He opened with his new theme: in these times of constant flux the good chief exec is one who says "I don't know" when asked a question by his staff.

Well, I don't know about you, but if he had told me that before I forked out pound;350, I might not have braved the M6 in search of enlightenment.

He stuck to his nostrum bravely, however: every question got an: "I don't know"... followed by a 15-minute peroration that sounded very much as if he did.

Before the Peterine lawyers pick up the telephone, I must add that there was much excellent stuff, too. But I haven't yet had the courage to use the "don't know" method at work. Will it do if the governors ask about this year's exam results? And domestically, will it serve as an answer to the question: do you still love me? Or to the even more fiendish one that faces all men at some time and to which all known responses lead only to trouble: which dress should I wear: the red or the green?

However, others seem to have taken the Peters philosophy to heart, notably the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council.

It is, for example, brilliantly clever of the DfES to think of a device such as "headline" targets. These are the upper performance limits which colleges must reach if they are to receive the full amount of funding which is rightly theirs in the first place.

Obviously, it would be grossly unfair to set the same target for everyone, given the disparity in our circumstances. This would simply reward the fortunate and cut funds from those in greatest need. It would also mean that, since most colleges would not qualify for full funding, the DfES could claim an increase in cash on offer for FE without actually spending any.

So, through the LSC, we ask what the department's intentions are on targets. How will they be determined: locally and flexibly, or through a single national formula? The answer would bring a warm glow to Tom's cheeks. He would recognise a model pupil.

And what about funding and student numbers? We are going into the second year of the funding regime so there must, surely, by now be answers to basic questions about this. Next year I have pound;30 million to spend. To earn this I have to achieve a certain level of student activity. So far that activity has been expressed in three, different ways: student numbers; full-time equivalents; and the computer-generated cash-for-student system called the ILR. Since these figures are not obviously related, I asked which one would be used to judge whether I had earned my pound;30m or not.

Again, Tom Peters would admire the response I got.

But we should be careful what we wish for. If my question had been answered with clarity, I might be asked to reveal how I tweak the way I recruit depending on the measure used to judge me.I would then be forced to unveil the infinitely variable, scientifically-based and endlessly flexible nature of my recruitment strategies, depending on whether the final target is 12,675 enrolments, 9,000 FTE, or pound;30m. I have even heard, shockingly, that some of my colleagues employ a system which is a little more hit-and-miss.

But if muddling through is good enough for our masters, why does our funding rely on a system which reduces the complexity of recruiting and retaining millions of people on courses to a ludicrously precise and vastly oversimplified headline target of, say, 83.54 per cent? I don't know!

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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