Total recall is best off-target

6th November 1998 at 00:00
TALKING of targets, here's a piece of research to try at home. Dig out your old suits or handbags and go through the pockets. Have you found a small, laminated card? Is it headed "Targets for 2000" on one side, and "National Targets for Education and Training" on the other?

"Do you remember them?" someone asked me nostalgically at a recent seminar. Back at home I searched for the black bag I once carried to conferences, and there was the indestructible card that officials used to hand out like Smarties.

"By age 19, 85 per cent of young people to achieve five GCSEs at grade C or above, (or the vocational equivalent)" it stated; and "By age 21, 60 per cent of young people to achieve two GCE A-levels, an Advanced GNVQ or an NVQ level 3."

Along with more targets for lifelong learning, these were the over-confident promises of the last Government, although it was soon clear that we were not on course for bull's- eyes all round by 2000. How would New Labour handle that poisoned legacy, I wondered then.

I needn't have worried because, soon after my serendipitous discovery, The TES broke the news that the Government is moving the goalposts. There were to be tough new GCSE targets for 16-year-olds, to match the ambitious goals already set for 11-year-olds by 2002, on which David Blunkett has staked his job as Education Secretary.

At first sight, it looked as if the new target - 50 per cent of 16-year-olds to get five good GCSEs (from A* to C) by 2002 - replaced the old target of 85 per cent of 19-year-olds by 2000, but that (including its vocational bit) is also still in place for 2002. And 60 per cent of 21-year-olds are still expected to gain 2 A-levels or their equivalent - by the later date. A core skill target has gone; others have been replaced.

But there is also an innovative target for 95 per cent of 16-year-olds, to achieve at least one GCSE by 2002, a move in the right direction for teachers who see the damage done across the ability range when only the top marks count.

It also shows that ministers are serious about linking social exclusion and educational policies, in a year when 38,000 16-year-olds left school with nothing. Thirty-eight per cent of the "status zero" group have no GCSE, says former New Labour adviser Nick Pearce, in the report on Wasted Youth which he wrote with Josh Hillman for the Institute for Public Policy Research. A target of 20 points was the best chance to keep them in education and training.

But who will be held to account for success, or failure, in 2002, a year when ministers' jobs will anyway be on the line? Will young people get due credit if they hit the targets, or will the usual suspects sneer that standards have dropped? Will teachers share the praise, or blame, for results, and will they affect their own performance targets? Would they want them to? And will the chief inspector's merit rises depend at all on targets hit by 2002?

Since Chris Woodhead has received almost the full performance-related bonus possible for the past three years, we must assume that his 10 per cent hasn't been nibbled away by the failure so far of 11-year-olds to meet all test expectations.

The trouble is that useful performance targets are even harder than achievement targets to devise - whether in education, the City, industry, media or government. You have to measure what is quantifiable, rather than the skills or emotional intelligence which may be what make you good at your job.

This can lead to bizarre results: Michael Howard as Home Secretary sacked his prisons chief, although the poor man had hit all his performance targets; City and BBC fat cats have claimed their bonuses as banks sank under them, or management decisions came publicly unstuck.

Whitehall has its own ways and Mr Woodhead is assessed by Number 10, but it is hard to see how the criteria connect to the standards agenda. And, since his personal objectives include good media coverage for the inspection service, I'd like to know how you balance column inches against pupil achievement, or lunch with a leader-writer against a school visit.

Targets work by focusing effort on achievement, and the more realistic new ones stand a better chance than the old because they are set at school, as well as on the remote national level. But it would still be as well not to set them in stone - or to laminate them.

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