Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Measuring Real Education

A couple of weeks ago I was at an 'innovation lab' in Leeds on disrupting poverty. The theme was how to break the cycle of poverty and give kids from all backgrounds a fair chance in life. How to overcome multi-generation worklessness and the culture of despair which leads to crime, addiction, dysfunctional families and yes, even riots.

It's not all about money of course. Even if money was available (which it isn't), throwing it at the problem would make little difference. Kids need real opportunities, together with personal qualities such as resilience, self-belief and positivity. Here, we can learn a lot from those who have succeeded in breaking the cycle, who have overcome multiple disadvantages to succeed in life.

I believe, passionately, that every child possesses the ability to excel at something. It's a belief that comes from personal knowledge of children who were academically very poor but who suddenly flourished when they discovered a rare hidden gift (drums, electronics, singing, particular sports – examples are many and varied). The key is finding that unique potential in every child. This is partly about giving them the opportunity to try as many different skills or activities as possible, and partly about the mindset that all of us need to make this happen.

Part of the conversation at disrupting poverty got round to education, and this is where performance measurement comes it. At present, our education system is measured almost entirely on academic attainment: how many GCSEs, A-levels or other qualifications young people achieve.

But we are saying that young people need more than this; they also need the other personal qualities and opportunities highlighted above. How likely are they to get all this when exam results are virtually all that matters to our schools?

I speak from my own experience, because despite achieving (many years ago) 10 O-levels and 5 A-levels I view myself as a educational failure. Why? Because I went on to university without any real idea why I was there, and dropped out after just over a year. I got by OK, but was only some 20 years later - largely by chance - but I discovered my real vocation.

We can only change this by changing how we assess the effectiveness of education. I'm not suggesting that exams are irrelevant, simply that they are only part of the picture. We also need to measure how 'life-ready' young people are when they leave education, and the extent to which the system helps everyone to fulfil their potential.

How we do this is not easy and I don't profess to have all the answers. But here's just one idea: suppose that the assessment of secondary schools' performance included the proportion of their students who are NEET (Not in Education Employment or Training), say, six months after leaving school. I recognise that many schools make efforts to reduce this already but a performance indicator of this type, alongside exam results, would surely broaden the focus of education and get everyone looking for that magic spark that exists in all youngsters.

A lot of change is needed to achieve this, but it starts by all of us understanding the problem. We need to demand that education is more than just an exam-passing system, but contributes to releasing the full potential of every young person.


Check my web site at for more information and ideas.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Cost of Wellbeing?

I'm interested by a recent report from Family Investments [here] that tells me that the best place in England to bring up children is the village of Winkleigh in Devon. Interested not because of the prospect of a mass-migration to Devon, but because it's a classic example of really bad research.

The report uses a points-scoring system to evaluate a range of 'wellbeing' factors, including education, crime, property prices, birth rate (so the kids will have friends) and amenities. The principle here is sound enough: develop a common currency to compare very different attributes, some of which may be intangible. Social Return on Investment (SROI) does this by using financial proxies to assess how much a particular service or course of action might be worth to its stakeholders. But the currency doesn't have to be money; it could be points, smiley faces or whatever you choose to make it provided you can say what the 'exchange rate' is.

Problems start with getting the factors and this exchange rate right. What would be the trade-off rate between better local amenities and a higher crime rate for example? How much weight should we give to clean air and a healthy environment compared with higher property prices?

In practice, people make their own decisions on this often enough. Should we move to a more expensive area to get our children into a better school? Should we pay for private healthcare rather than wait for the NHS? Yes, we can put a value on these questions, (and many studies have done) by taking a national average. But in practice these decisions are personal ones, because we're all individuals not a collection of averages.

So it's nice to learn that salaries in Winkleigh are some 50% above the national average - but only if you're earning one of those salaries, not if you're contemplating moving without a job! And if your favourite leisure location happens to be the Lake District then you'd be a long way away.

So whilst this report may be curious reading, it's spurious research; basically just a PR exercise. For any wellbeing research to be meaningful it has to have a particular purpose or client group in mind. Either:

(a) policy-making at local or national level, where some kind of average might be relevant, or

(b) an individual or specific group who could benefit from a particular initiative or changed situation

Good evaluation, particularly where it touches on intangibles such as wellbeing, must have a clear purpose and identify practical benefits that a target audience can do something about. The Family Investment report fails this basic test.

Check my web site at for more information and ideas.