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Targets aren't the be-all and end-all

It is hard to feel cheerful in adult education right now. Everywhere you look, funding pressures are leading to narrower courses for adults.

Closures, cuts, and rumours of cuts abound. From the distinguished bastions of university adult education to the modest provision in a rural village, the smack of firm government is felt. Does this work contribute to our targets? No? What use is it then? Oh, the pleasure of a clean crisp target - it clarifies the mind and purifies the spirit. And for those learners who don't want a qualification? Better, surely, to steer them to what is good for them. You see it in the valiant struggles of the Learning and Skills Council to meet the basic skills target: 750,000 passing tests by 2007.

The trouble is that, despite the impressive successes to date, many learners are backsliding. The aim was that for every 2.7 adults joining a course or programme, one would take a qualification that counted towards the target. Alas, three years in, and the ratio is slipping. This year it is 2.8:1. Unless there is clarity, who knows what may follow? That way anarchy lies. To see it off, local councils put more pressure on providers to ensure enough people get GCSEs, key skills qualifications, or the higher stages of literacy qualifications to pronounce the policy a success.

Yet the target is a proxy. It helps us to focus on whether the system is meeting adults' aspirations. For so many learners, though, the target is not the primary goal. For thousands of students queuing for scarce places on English as a second language courses, written comprehension - the basis of the national tests - must surely come second to fluent oral communication. Yet we find it difficult to measure talk on a scale of one to ten. For people with numeracy needs, allied to money problems, the pressing need is often to sort out the finances before worrying about the piece of paper.

This is no criticism of the role the Basic Skills Strategy Unit has played in creating more opportunities for adults seeking to increase their skills in literacy, numeracy and language. The problem is that targets can distort what providers do, and tempt government to miss the real strengths of its achievement. If only one in three literacy, language and numeracy students takes a test that counts towards the national target, it might mean that recalcitrant and ideologically motivated tutors are preventing their students from gaining public recognition for all the learning they have done.

It is more likely, however, that adult learners are using the system to meet their own real needs, rather than those predicted by target-setters.

Typical examples of this group are people seeking to strengthen skills in maths and English along the way to a qualification in catering, or law or nursing. Their key motivation is to get better at making food, clarifying and resolving disputes, or caring for people too vulnerable or poorly to look after themselves. Getting better at writing, or estimation can help immensely with those aims. But how can the State see any improvement in the basic skills without tests?

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has just published a policy discussion paper on these matters. Testing, Testing: One, Two Three, by Peter Lavender, Jay Derrick and Barry Brooks, concludes that tests and targets are no simple proxy for the learning that really matters. Targets have their uses in concentrating the minds of providers on public priorities, and in squeezing cash from the Treasury. And the last thing we want at the time of a spending review when money is tight is a loss of visibility for language, literacy and numeracy.

We need to work on measures that capture the richness and variety of learners' achievements. We also need a mature policy debate about the lessons learned from major initiatives such as the Skills for Life programme. The aim should be to use the target as a measure, to examine where predicted outcomes need modification in the light of experience. That would provide the basis for the evidence-based policy the Government wants.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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