Targets. The word invokes a sharp sense of dread for many in education: boxes to be ticked, hoops jumped through. But this is not the point of targets, insists John Harwood. The chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council is a forceful advocate. For him, the T-word has a far more effective message.
"They are ways of measuring where you are: a benchmark," he says. "Targets are a way of understanding what the country needs to do in order to have a modern 21st-century society, and to progress towards that goal. We need to know how the UK compares with other countries in relation to educational achievement, the levels of skill of the workforce, and, closely coupled with this, productivity and world competitiveness. The need to up-skill the nation is a key priority and driver for the Government and the LSC - using such measures as a starting point, we can see how far we need to travel and ensure we are on course."
And he stresses: "These are not relevant just for the LSC but for the whole sector: schools, colleges and learning organisations around the country. If society is putting in a huge amount of money, it needs to know it is getting value for money and that progress is being made.
"If you talk to athletes about how they train, they certainly do not just potter around the track and hope everything will be all right when they get to the big race. They plan, they monitor their performance, all with the intention of winning that race. Our race is over a longer period but the prize is just as compelling - ensuring that by 2010 young people and adults have the knowledge and productive skills matching the best in the world."
Targets are ubiquitous - ask any college principal. But, says Harwood, essentially they can be distilled into two groups: the performance of learners in the 16-19 age group; and closing the national skills gap.
"The level of 16-18 participation has risen for the first time since the early 1990s and is now the highest ever. This is great news, but there is still much more to be done to ensure we maintain momentum," he says. "This in tandem with tackling the skills needs of business is a major priority."
Skills, however, present an immensely more complicated jigsaw. He cites a list of targets met: modern apprenticeships, adult basic skills and Investors in People all on track. "These are tremendous achievements for the LSC and our partners," he says. "But in some areas the picture is a little less satisfactory - for instance, in respect of 19-year-olds at levels 2 and 3 (equivalent to GCSE and A-level)."
The discrepancy may be more a problem of the way the data is collected: the council relies on national sample data from the English Labour Force Survey. However, in areas where data has been drawn from larger samples, the actual attainment figures are much higher. "It appears we may be significantly under-estimating progress," says Harwood.
The collection, collation and analysis of data - the LSC is still trying to "unpack" figures it inherited from the Further Education Funding Council in 2000 - has in general provided a headache. It is one that Harwood is keen to address.
"We want to move towards 'real-time' information and actual administrative data, rather than rely on survey figures." With the LSC putting pound;60 million this year into improving level 2 and 3 performance for the 16-19 age group, and planning to do the same again next year, it will want reassurance that the money is being well spent.
Meanwhile, there is a world beyond targets that throws up issues of its own. Some research suggests that 70 per cent of adult learning may be outside the national qualifications network. While Harwood thinks this figure is "a bit high", he accepts that there is a lot happening that is at level 1 (basic skills) or is not accredited within the qualifications framework. He wants to see this change and, with other bodies including the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Sector Skills Development Agency, the LSC is tackling the issue urgently.
"We need more effective ways of helping people in the workforce to conquer higher levels of skills to meet their aspirations. This means having more 'small bites' of learning that build to a valid whole qualification, recognised nationally.
"A lot of skills learning could be incorporated into a qualification if we had a proper system of unitisation," he says. "It is one of the most important developments that can take place, something I would campaign for vigorously.
"It is a long-term agenda, but progress also has to be made in the short term. It is not all jam in five years and nothing in the meantime. We are working hard to drive forward early changes to the national qualifications framework."
So what does Harwood regard as the principal achievements of the Learning and Skills Council so far?
"We have the highest levels of participation (in education) ever secured in this country; and we are really tackling the underlying skills issues," he says. "We need to invest in the capital plant in the post-16 sector (schools and colleges). One thing that struck me forcibly was that a lot has been allowed to deteriorate and has not been replaced with new investment.
"I have guaranteed that the LSC will fund every 16 to 18-year-old that a college or work-based training provider recruits, even if this means going above their initial agreed allocation."
Another priority is adult basic skills.
"The need for a literate, numerate workforce comes through loud and clear from employers," he says. "Too many people cannot play even a basic role in society and we must carefully target resources so that genuine need is met." All indications are that there will be a shift of funds from those already with qualifications to those who cannot read and write.
The Government has signalled that free tuition will be restricted to an adults' "first" level 2 qualification (see page 4) to get them on the learning ladder. The Confederation of British Industry also sees adult basic skills as a priority (see page 12).
All targets aim at a central imperative, says Harwood. "The level 2 and 3 skills shortages in industry cannot be ignored any longer." This puts the LSC in a central position. Pilot schemes to tackle skills shortages and raise employer involvement in learning point to the value of the council as the "broker" between employers, colleges, training providers and learners.
There is a clear message for those in the sector. The importance of level 2 (GCSE standard) success is that it triggers aspiration to level 3 - where benefits to companies and financial rewards to individuals kick in. "And that offers colleges and private providers a golden opportunity that they must seize," says Harwood.