In recent times we have seen everyone from Gordon Brown to Liam Byrne MP talking about reductions not only in the targets government sets, but also taking a second look at the nature of target-setting itself. Good news indeed.
I question whether the real priorities for my college are best served by the use of multiple targets and benchmarks. Would working to common goals with others, rather than individual agency targets, provide a more successful answer to the issues we are trying to address?
David Collins, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), was quoted recently in FE Focus as saying that his organisation "needed to be more focused to ensure its programmes were achieving the aim of improving the quality of FE teaching and leadership rather than merely hitting targets".
Perhaps the time is right, after more than a decade of a target-driven activity, to take a more mature approach if targets are to do more than support the achievement of high standards and make a significant contribution to the communities our colleges serve. We need to ensure that the focus on institutional targets does not reduce the chances of success for multi-agency working, which is crucial if we are to make the significant inroads into the solving of many of society's ills.
Through many years of close involvement in multi-agency partnerships I am confident that there is a definite interrelationship between health, social care, poor housing, unemployment, crime and - critically - the lack of skills necessary to climb out of the poor situations many find themselves in. Colleges therefore have an intrinsic need to link effectively with other public and voluntary sector agencies in order to support fully those with difficulties.
Each of these agencies, like the FE sector, has mission statements, strategic and operational plans that contain well-intentioned key performance indicators that are supposed to encourage improvements in standards and performance. And yet there is, it seems to me, a fundamental flaw in that all these targeted outputs relate to the work of the individual agency at the expense of the encouragement of inter-agency collaboration.
For example, unwanted teenage pregnancy is a serious issue that can devastate lives in many of our towns and cities. Colleges do much good in trying to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, as do individual primary care trusts, yet it seems that very few agencies realise that the vast majority of young people either come to our colleges, or their friends do, which makes us an ideal partner to work with on this issue. A target-setting regime that encouraged multi-agency working within public sector organisations could help to deal with issues such as the above.
The introduction of local area agreements in recent years has provided an element of hope in this regard, but there needs to be much more progress in our willingness to engage in joined-up thinking, strategic commissioning and inter-related target setting.
All colleges are, of course, able to set whatever targets they want, in line with the strategic direction that their boards decide to take. However, given the importance placed on the achievement of targets by our funders, it would be a brave board indeed that decided to ignore the financial levers in play.
Given the significant changes in the machinery of government, perhaps now is the time to look again at the real value of the targets we have to use.
Graham Morley, Principal, South Staffordshire College.