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.


  1. Hola & amen
    Andy I left school with worm of learning in my 'stomach' (the place where my emotions presumably reside). I swallowed this worm and it ate away at all the other stuff in there. I tried everything to feed it and get it sorted. I think I found you can't please the worm of learning if your frightened of it. I am clensed of that worm and can clean out the occassional eggs of it's parent with faithful, fun, and ownership of my body plus the thoughtful intake of sucre, food and expierences of CHOICE... Sorry for the mataphor, but that's just how I can say thanks... I agree :) @stanleycap

  2. Good stuff Andy..! Completely agree.
    I think a push-pull approach is needed. Schools need to nurture the innate desire to learn. And opportunities need to available outside schools for people to try things, fail, learn and make a path through it.
    So I'd like to work on interaction points outside of school and ways to help the teaching system within schools.
    Ps I went to Steiner school and I really really value that in teaching oursleves how to thing.

  3. (Teaching ourselves how to thinK but not apparently how to spell..)