Targets moving the wrong way

June 9, 1995

If at first you don't succeed - you don't succeed." This is the reality of the British system of education and training for many millions of people.

The revised National Education and Training Targets, launched two weeks ago with the Competitiveness White Paper, do not seem to improve matters.

The first version of the targets, which held out the promise that all employees would in future be brought into training and development activity, seemed to be a turning point in the struggle to change this reality.

Although the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the national organisation for adult learning, had criticisms of the targets - they excluded those not in the workforce and had a narrow definition of what that workforce is - we welcomed the acceptance within them that everybody had a contribution to make to economic success.

These original targets were formulated by business and the TUC and later endorsed by Government. The new targets show all the signs of being shaped by Government's current "thinking" about education and training and, as a consequence, are narrower in scope and ambition and lacking in vision and excitement.

In its response to the review document published last year the institute made a number of general points about the target effort: * the welcome inclusiveness of the original Lifetime Target One which talked about "all employees" should be maintained and strengthened by adopting a measurable target for those at basic or entry levels; * the definition of the "workforce" should be widened beyond those currently having the status of employees; * the changing nature of the employed workforce should be acknowledged; * the contribution that all kinds of learning make to business success should be confirmed.

Above all, we were concerned that the revised targets should be a continuing pressure for overcoming the barriers to participation which leave so many people without any experience of education and training after school.

The outcome of the review seems to us to represent a retreat on all these fronts.

The concentration of the targets on what is easily measured, the concentration on higher level skills, the relegation of any attempt at comprehensiveness to the status of an aim - all lead away from the most intractable problem: the failure of the education and training system to reach great segments of the people such as the unemployed, the unqualified, early school leavers, part-time and temporary workers, lower socio-economic groups.

Within the new aims there is reference (Aim Two) to all individuals having "access", but the proposed indicators for this aim will measure participation and achievement, not access or opportunity.

Previous Lifetime Target One called for "all employees" to take part in training and development activity. Now Aim Two calls on "all employers to invest in employee development"; there is no guarantee that any higher proportion of workers will actually participate.

Indeed, the transfer of emphasis from employee to employer will significantly reinforce the tendency of British employers to invest in what they perceive as their "core" employees and to make no effort to involve the "periphery".

The restrictive definition of the workforce that the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets adopts may have the effect of further narrowing the target effort. The workforce on which Britain's future depends is clearly much more than the sum of those currently employed.

To confine the targets to those currently in employment both understates the problem of Britain's lack of competitiveness and, of course, makes the targets more easily attainable.

NIACE argued strongly against the adoption of a higher-level target without a balancing target at entry/basic levels, but this is what we now have -compounded by the abandonment of comprehensiveness in any of the targets and a narrowing emphasis on vocationalism.

The United Kingdom is good at continuing the education and training of those with some achievement already to their credit and our staying-on rate is improving.

The new Lifetime Target Two - "30 per cent of the workforce to have a vocational, professional, management or academic qualification at NVQ level 4 or above" - hardly presents a challenge.

However, the lack of a basic/entry level target will begin to make Lifetime Target One - "60 per cent of the workforce to be qualified to NVQ level 3, Advanced GNVQ, or two GCE A levels, standard" - difficult to achieve.

If greater effort is not made to reverse the situation in which the large numbers of people who do not do well at school never re-enter the world of education and training, then eventually there will not be the base on which to build further success at level 3.

The proposed indicators to Aim One - "All employers invest in employee development to achieve business success" - reveal that "employee development" is now more or less equated with "job-related training". This is very far from what is needed in the creation of a competitive workforce. "Core skills" are a beginning, but only a beginning.

A comprehensive participation target for those at the bottom of the achievement ladder would have been a real challenge.

The institute therefore reluctantly concludes that the new targets (unexceptionable in themselves) signal a wrong direction when compared with their predecessors.

They avoid the main issues of lack of motivation to learn, of lack of general and basic skills, of the narrowness of the social and economic groups who participate in learning. They are a missed opportunity.

Tony Uden is associate director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

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