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Too many targets spoil the effect

Fear of failure is producing a culture of compliant managers with a bully-boy style. Ian Nash reports

THE Government is obsessed by targets. It sets more and more of them. Ministers identify an issue, set a target, throw cash at it and tell the colleges to get on with the work.

Too many targets are contradictory or the boundaries between them blurred. So we have targets for basic skills, widening participation, 14 to 19 collaboration, 700,000 extra adults to recruit, a 50 per cent increase in higher education recruitment, and so on.

As conflicting interests vie for supremacy, some must fail. And since, Stephen Byers apart, ministers don't fail (after all, they are not doing the teaching), the fault must lie elsewhere.

Rather than "blame" colleges, politicians say, "You cannot do it all, so specialise". And, in the call for them to do so, is an implicit but demoralising assumption that, like comprehensives, the general FE college has failed.

Wily managers know how to handle this: manage (or manipulate) the figures, not the students. Hence, mass manipulation replaces mass education. Suddenly, we have 370 colleges claiming to be world-class specialists in everything from engineering and art and design to sport and drama. How many really deserve the status "Centres of Vocational Excellence" and how many are chasing cash while flattering ministers' vanities?

The upshot is, as pointed out at a recent TES-sponsored Association for College Management seminar, that we have armies of middle managers chasing targets, cash and kudos under the edict: thou shalt not fail.

If they look like failing, costly consultants are called in to make pound;1 million deficits appear as pound;500,000 profits, simply by thoughtful manipulation of student recruitment numbers. And who can blame the colleges when the prime objective of governments is to hit targets?

But one essential element has been lost in all this: leadership. It is a concern that surfaced time and again at the ACM seminar on management and leadership. Lynne Sedgemore, principal of Guildford College, put her finger on it when she said: "If we insist on following targets we end up with compliant managers. But these are not the people who will take risks, who are willing to be seen to fail, who learn from failure." The result: bully-boy management with few new ideas.

One of the biggest mistakes of David Blunkett, when Education Secretary, was to over-centralise, she said. Learning about leadership was not even on the agenda in education. Instead of "leaders as transformers", the principal's job was to provide "factory managers". New Labour had defined what needed transforming; the job of colleges was to get on with it.

The control freakery inherited from the Tories has created legions of auditors, mountains of paperwork and volumes of distrust. More damaging, the workload denies people the time for reflection and self-examination needed to judge their leadership qualities.

Ministers have woken up to this. But rather than admit errors, they call for a national college of leadership - a gut instinct of centralisers. The question is whether the profession can hijack it and claw back control from politicians.

Ann Limb, chief executive of the University for Industry, told the seminar:

"There is an alarming poverty of aspiration and self-belief among young people to offer themselves for leadership". One reason? Fear of failure in the targets jungle. "The college has to be under our control if it is to succeed."

Lynne Sedgemore agreed and argued for a better understanding of the "flawed excellence" of leaders with the self-perception needed to deal with everyday failure, weakness and vulnerability. "The job of the good leader is handling risk, coping with complexity and uncertainty. That is very different to control management."

Every corner of the public sector - health, education, transport, social welfare - has had a succession of governments displaying the worst Victorian excesses of Jeremy Bentham's pseudo-scientific number-crunching exercises. Such exercises are too easily fiddled. Worse, they miss essential educational qualities and narrow down success measures to definables: exams, league tables, jobs. Pursuit of expedience replaces pursuit of excellence.

Lynne Sedgemore lamented: "It is harder to be flawed and human in a target-setting era than ever before". The answer: "Don't collude. The more people don't, the more politicians will have to listen."

If ministers look around them, they will see plenty of burgeoning local centres of leadership, such as the award-winning scheme outlined below. The question is, will the national college enhance such home-grown initiative? Or, as too often with centralised plans, will it destroy them?

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