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Quality lesson in lottery logic

"Right," says Fred. "Both of us together, one each end and steady as she goes."

Fred pauses. He is talking to his manager, Brian, about targets, and wonders if Brian might have spotted any incipient irony. But Fred, who works at a neighbouring college to mine, has forgotten that these days FE managers tend to be irony-free zones.

In fact, Brian did have an objection (Fred told me later), but only to the latter part of his utterance.

"This is a target-setting meeting," says Brian. "Expressions like 'steady as she goes' imply complacency and are not helpful."

Fred wonders whether Brian really believes in all this targets stuff, or just pretends he does. Fred is a grown-up, so he knows what utter bollocks institutionalised target-setting has become.

But he's not so sure about Brian. He knows that many managers in FE believe that Father Christmas brings presents, that the tooth fairy brings sixpences and that quality systems bring quality. And Brian is a West Ham United supporter as well as an activist in New Labour, so he's used to believing all he's told, even if it flies in the face of the evidence.

"Last time around," says Brian, peering over the top of his pince-nez, "your retention and achievement figures were 88, 82, 79 and 91 per cent respectively. Where do you intend taking them this year?"

"Look Brian," says Fred, "as you well know, I don't actually have control over many of the variables here. No matter how hard my team tries, students will still change their minds, have breakdowns, go broke or get pregnant - and sometimes all four of them at once. What you're asking me to do is a bit like picking six numbers in the lottery."

"Fred," says Brian impatiently, "you're being unhelpful again."

Fred looks at Brian. Brian looks at Fred. They have reached their usual impasse. Fred, of course, blinks first. He always does. That's what line management is all about.

At last Fred says: "Let's say 91, 85, 82 and 94 then."

"Excellent," says Brian, writing the numerals with a flourish. "They were the very figures I had in mind myself."

Then Fred tries another tack.

"Brian, have you ever thought about the logic of what you're asking me to do?"

Brian thinks for a moment.

"I don't think the principal has ever instructed me to do anything like that, Fred."

He pats the fat volume labelled "Quality Procedures 03-04" which sits on his desk. "And there is certainly nothing logical in here."

"That's it, you see," says Fred. "You ask me to raise my targets by a few percentage points each year. But it's got built-in failure - we're never going to get them all up to 100 per cent, are we?"

"We certainly won't if you say we won't," Brian says dustily. "That's worse than being unhelpful, Fred. It's downright defeatist."

"All right," says Fred, warming to his task. "Let's say I get all my students staying on course and they all achieve all their qualifications: a 100 per cent success. Where do we go from there?"

Brian pirouettes through the grey matter for a second time. Then he pronounces: "We raise the target to 110 per cent."

"Oh, come on now," says Fred. "That's such an obvious contradiction in terms - even the principal would spot it."

"Oh, really?" retorts Brian. "Only the other day I heard the England football manager say that the boy Beckham had given 110 per cent in a match. Nobody picks up Sven on fussy semantics, do they? And Sven's a Swede - you can't get more logical than that."

Fred looks as if he's not sure whether to laugh or cry.

"You see, Fred," says Brian, "I've thought for some time now that you're a bit behind the times.I just don't think you appreciate the sorts of things we can do with language in the new FE. For instance, look at the strides Ofsted is making. That pronouncement on how 'satisfactory' really means 'unsatisfactory' was an absolute masterstroke."

"Right," says Fred. "And 50 is the new 40, and grey is the new black."

"Exactly," says Brian. "Surely you've heard all your students say bad when they mean good?"

"Well, er..."

"And take that averaging exercise we did in the college last month. Right away the principal said we had to do better. He didn't want anyone below average any more."

But, but..." "Surely you don't want any of your students' performances to be below average do you, Fred?"

"Of course not. But..." "Be careful, Fred..." (Brian tidies his papers and signals the end of the meeting.) ..."Because unless I'm very much mistaken, you're about to be unhelpful again."

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