Salaried lemon squeezers;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

14th May 1999 at 01:00
SQUEEZE a lemon and what do you get? Juice, naturally. Squeeze it again and yes, more juice flows. Squeeze some more (with perhaps a little added pressure now) and still it comes. One more time and, oops, the juice has run out. All that's left is husk, pulp, a mess.

Now apply the same principle to a place of learning. Squeeze, squeeze and squeeze again. What do you get? Answer: a wonderful college!

Unlikely though that seems, isn't it exactly what the target-setters of this world are continually telling us? It's simple, they say. First you diagnose what's wrong. Then you set your target to remedy it. When you've achieved that you set another, and another and another. Onwards and upwards on the great conveyor belt to educational heaven.

But hold on a moment. Surely it's a logical absurdity to think that you can go on and on improving things for ever. Even our poor beleaguered chief inspector of schools has twigged to that one. Taking time off from not going to New Zealand last week, the chief inspector Mr Woodhead told a gathering of primary heads: "I do not accept the naive belief that schools can improve year on year. The Government has got to take that professional truth on board with regard to its targets."

So there. But will anyone in colleges take notice? I doubt it. Not yet anyway. Targets are where it's at: the latest bandwagon. You miss it at your peril. And let's not forget their inevitable adjunct, the action plan (known to cynics everywhere as the inaction plan). Action plans never come singly. Like roll-up cigarettes you must make one now and one to go behind the ear for later. They are important because they ensure, don't they, that your targets will be "delivered"?

How simple life would be if that really was true. The doctor could save more patients (Action plan: cut deeper). The gambler would always make his million (Action plan: bet higher). The runner would year on year pare down the four-minute mile to three, two, one... (Action plan: run faster).

There is nothing wrong with targets in their proper place. For sorting out a mess they are invaluable. This is where we are. This is where we want to be. What must we do to make sure we get there?

The problems begin when you extend the principle into other areas. Or, as today, into all areas. In large organisations such as colleges they simply become institutionalised. After the first couple of years you either go on setting real targets that you can't meet or phoney ones (dressed up as real ones) that you can.

And with phoney targets you end up worse off than if you never had them in the first place. Instead of real improvement you have sham improvement - kidding others perhaps but, more dangerously, kidding yourself.

How has this happened? Maybe it is not unconnected to our tendency to uncritically swallow the latest educational orthodoxy. And then of course we have been helped along the path of acceptance by that inevitable FE breed - the true believers.

We all know them, don't we? First they convince themselves it is so; then they set out on their mission to convince the rest of us. You can generally tell a true believer by the stupid smile they have plastered across their faces. For the true believer tomorrow is always the first day of the rest of their lives. And they leap from their beds in the morning declaring that in every way, on every day, they are getting better.

The true believer doesn't have a job as such. (Though naturally they have a salary). Most wouldn't recognise a student if it jumped up and bit them. Rather they exist in that marginal world of cross-collegedom. Like similar creatures they have their being in the cracks that form between the fabric of the place - faculties, departments, schools - whatever.

But even without a real job to do the true believer is always busy. After all they've got their true believer targets to meet. True believers are habitual attenders at courses. They turn up at the meetings. Sometimes they even call meetings of their own. And you can always tell a true believer by their familiarity with the latest jargon. Remember how they were all happily "flagging-up" new ideas when the rest of us were still just flagging.

So it was the true believers who first brought us targets. And you can bet your bottom dollar it'll be the true believers who'll be the first to ditch them. Come the day (and it will come) when we finally realise that there are limits to their effectiveness, the true believers will be nowhere to be seen. Or rather they will. But by now they'll be riding along on the crest of the next wave of orthodoxy, believing, as fervently as they ever have believed, that tomorrow is the first day of the rest of their lives.

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