Targets for all - a modest suggestion
Target setting in Education is endemic but, strangely enough, a government so committed to this form of social engineering seems to have overlooked the possibility of setting targets for its own education team. It therefore seems like a good time to suggest the establishment of a part time academic task force to remedy this omission.
Parents, governors and everyone else with a vote, clearly need to have information about the DfEE's performance. Since there is only one DfEE, however,we would be unable to produce a league table so that clear criteria will be necessary which can be monitored over time. Of course, this needs to be a constructive enterprise which takes place on the basis of mutual trust and this means that the DfEE will have to avoid making unrealistic complaints about the targets it is set and trust the advice and evidence that experienced professionals can provide. If we can achieve this trust and if the DfEE listens and acts on the basis of proper evidence rather than mere sound bites and ideological conviction then there is surely a bright future for education.
Notwithstanding this, it must be made absolutely clear that there will be zero tolerance of failure. If the DfEE fails to meet any of its targets the fact will be publicly exposed. Moreover, we shall be tough not only on failure itself but on the causes of failure. Whenever failure occurs we shall send in an academic 'help squad' - ministers and their advisors will be required to attend seminars on educational research methods and in extreme cases will be required to write a dissertation on school improvement before being allowed to resume their work.
So what are the targets?
First of all we shall require minimum standards of numeracy. In comparison with the average educated adult, the current standard of many ministers and advisors is far too low - 7 x 8 is not equal to 54, and requiring 80% of children to be above average says little for basic standards of numeracy. If this country is to prosper in international ministerial competitions the levels must be raised. This means, for example, strict instruction in how to understand results of Key Stage 2 tests, careful training in the proper interpretation unexpected' levels of achievement and allowing ministers to use calculators when answering questions from the media.
The second target is to lever up standards of attendance. When was the last time a serving minister went along to any substantial part of a serious educational conference, ready to listen and debate rather than present and push off? Policy decisions should not rest upon a few set piece speeches or media presentations where the odd 'expert' is encouraged to pontificate and where complex realities tend to get oversimplified. We should require every minister to attend at least two serious conferences a year for an overall minimum of 4days. Since ministerial choice is important they will be allowed to choose which conferences they attend from an approved list. As before, failure will not be tolerated and if the target is not met the offending minister will be prevented from making any public pronouncements on educational policy until the target is achieved.
The final major target is to require the DfEE to raise the educational attainment of the general public to the level at which they can understand there al value and limitations of school league tables. Of course, some ministers and advisors will first have to undergo a retraining course, which will be provided at minimal cost. In particular, they should be obliged to find innovative ways of conveying the severe limitations and caveats which apply to these tables. This will need vision and leadership and will be a crucial test for the government.
The targets described here are both realistic and achievable. They involve no extra cost to the taxpayer and can be implemented immediately. Indeed, with careful implementation they will save money in the long term. The new administration has a mandate for change and there is an historic opportunity for those steering the ship to guide her on an exciting new journey. These targets are merely a starting point: if realised they will provide a basis for real educational progress. On the other hand, if the politicians persistently fail then, in accordance with current policy, the DfEE will have to close itself down and reopen, naturally with a new Head and senior staff as well as a new name.