Warning: some of our teenagers are missing

MANY people remember the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park but the real story was a massive failure in counting. A state-of-the-art computer system counted the dinosaurs every 15 minutes until it reached the number it was programmed to expect. As a result, the park's managers didn't notice that the dinosaurs were breeding. By the time the error had been spotted, some of the managers were lunch.

Post-16 education has its own counting problems, though the consequences are less serious. People at all levels, from Whitehall to the staff room, often find it difficult to get the data they need to do their jobs properly. Two big government initiatives aim to make things better.

The first is the Connexions Card, which is being launched nationally this year. Billed as the largest smart-card project in Europe, the Connexions Card will cost the Department for Education pound;109 million over seven years. The system is a public-private partnership project with Capita, the company behind the Criminal Records Bureau. The smart-card will track teenagers from the classroom to the training workshop and will offer them rewards for good attendance. If it works, the Government will know where 17-year-olds are at any hour of the day. If it works, the card will eliminate the need for numerous bureaucratic processes. Let's hope it works.

The Learning and Skills Council's individual learner record is a more modest initiative to improve data quality. This involves colleges and training providers sending data to Coventry. The individual record includes the name, address, telephone number, age, ethnicity, course and performance of every learner funded by the LSC.

The Further Education Funding Council collected a similar, though more limited, set of data through its individual student record. The difference is the LSC's greater reach. The LSC's data covers training and will be combined with figures from schools. In time, the LSC will be able to answer any conceivable question it may be asked. This is progress but, unfortunately, ILR implementation has been a little slow. Deadlines have been missed and software is not available. Many colleges will be late with their data this December.

People struggling with student data may be reassured to know they are not alone. The DFES may want a lot of information and may complain when it doesn't get it. But it doesn't always do much better itself. Take population data. Population data is important because most government targets are calculated as percentages of different age groups.

For example, by 2004, 85 per cent of 19-year-olds should have level 2 qualifications. It is, therefore, a little disconcerting to discover that the number of 16-year-olds in any one year is not a fixed figure. The DFES revised its count of 16-year-olds by 26,000 heads in June, between the publication of its departmental report and the publication of participation statistics. One moment there were 605,000 16-year-olds in 2000-1. A few weeks later, there were 631,000. This is not a trivial error when each 16-year-old costs pound;4,000 to educate and support.

The source of the problem is the way the Government counts people. A census taken every ten years doesn't capture everyone. Statisticians estimate the population movements in the intervening years but make excusable errors. But if government isn't certain how many people there are, can it set sensible targets?

Knowing what skills people have is even more of a challenge. Scepticism about the value of qualifications has risen in the past decade, putting the A-level gold standard under attack. This is one reason why national basic skills qualifications were invented. The new qualifications are intended to provide a consistent measure of performance through external testing. They are available nationally this month.

The two years it has taken to develop the qualifications has left the DFES with a problem: how should it measure performance against the 750,000 target set in 2000? One option would be to wait until the tests are available but this is not the option taken. Instead, the DFES has decided that anyone over 16 passing a level 2 GCSE or key skills "counts towards the target". On this basis, it claimed in August that "150,000 adults have passed a test in literacy and numeracy in the past year". Sounds impressive but is the "Get On" campaign really about teenagers?

Two swallows don't make a summer but this statistical juggling should give pause for thought. If we need to contort our measurements to fit our targets, perhaps we'd be better off with a different set of targets. Use numbers to measure progress but trust them at your peril.

Julian Gravatt is finance director at the City Lit, London

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