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Off target

What use are sophisticated new national measurement systems if colleges lack the same tools? asks Julian Gravatt.

July's Comprehensive Spending Review confirms plans for three more years of growth in education. The money will increase by almost one-third between now and 2004 - a rise in real terms of 5.8 per cent per annum. The Government can fund this because of its confidence in the economy and public finances. Low inflation, buoyant tax revenues and falling unemployment create space to spend more on education.

Most of the extra money will go on schools - the details will be outlined later in the autumn. Spending on further education in 20012 goes up by 10 per cent (pound;423 million) but this money will be mixed with other funding pots by the new learning and skills councils. The money will also depend on rising enrolments and efficiency gains. We're in the dark about the scale of these demands until we see the Department for Education and Employment's budget and directions to the national LSC.

The spending review is much more specific about its targets than about the money. This reflects the Government's interest in pledges and the Treasury's use of targets to control government departments. These targets have been written into formal public service agreements, which are now updated in this spending review.

For education, there are seven: fewer, tougher and more inclusive. Three focus on achievement by pupils at 11, 14 and 16. The rest relate to post-16: increased participation and achievement by the 16-18 age group, half the 18-30 cohort to go to higher education, and 750,000 fewer adults with poor basic skills. This last reaches parts of the population that the existing aims don't reach. These targets will bite and will guide education policy but they will not be the sum total of the Learning and Skills Council's ambitions.

The new Treasury targets are like minimum performance standards - measurable indicators but not a full set of objectives. The DFEE will expand on these when it gives the learning council its directions in the autumn. That council is required by law to respond to the department's directions and will pass responsibility downwards to its local councils, who in turn will contract with providers. We are familiar with the process but we will need to get used to the new faces, new rules and new language.

There will also be new systems. One problem with the spending review targets from 1998 was that the DFEE couldn't properl measure its 16-18 performance. Incompatible data forced it to scale down plans to set and measure detailed 16-18 local targets. Instead it has to rely on sample surveys. If the local learning councils can solve the problem of how to collect consistent data across sectors, this will change. The national council has pound;10m to spend on a business system and has plans for an Individual Learner Record for 20023.

These systems changes coincide - and could conflict - with other national developments. The DFEE has at least six national systems to control its empire and is investing large sums to improve them. They range from the dataset in schools to the higher education support system distributed across the Student Loans Company and local councils. There is the planned Connexions smart card for young people, the new Individual Learning Account centre for working adults and the national qualification databases. In addition, the University for Industry is spending pound;10m on a managed learning environment to collect data.

Education is a complex activity so some degree of parallel development is inevitable. But there are costs. National systems collect data in different ways and send them in separate channels up to Sanctuary Buildings. The data joins up in only two places - in the department's progress report to the Treasury and in the individual standing in front of you. Your typical learner - let's call him Alf - might appear in several forms in several different DFEE computer records. Every time he moves from one sector, he has to complete a new set of papers because transfer arrangements are almost non-existent. If Alf changes anything - name spelling, address - or if he drops out of university to go to college, then the chances of matching his records are remote.

This problem is not new but it becomes more acute as more pressure is put on education to plan and deliver. The big national systems may improve matters but only if they link to an effective local infrastructure. Smart cards run slowly on old networks. The LSC may be getting a new set of sophisticated tools but providers will need local upgrades to respond to a new set of directions. If there's one lesson we should learn from the 1990s, it is that a target is no use if you can't measure it. No matter how fancy their radars, the police couldn't enforce speed limits if cars didn't have speedometers.

Julian Gravatt is registrar of Lewisham College, London. e-mail: jgr@staff.lewisham.ac.uk

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