What do we really want from education?

I had a fascinating conversation this evening with Professor Philip Woods, chair in educational policy, leadership and democracy at the University of Hertfordshire, and Charles Weston, Director of Equity Research at Numis Securities. Philip is an expert in educational entrepreneurialism (amongst other things), and Charles is an analyst in private healthcare. Between us we analysed the emerging trend for private healthcare to move in to areas in which the NHS had a monopoly, and considered the implications for education.

Charles told us how a relatively small healthcare firm, Circle, beat the giant Serco to win the contract to run a poorly-performing NHS trust. Apparently they have already achieved amazing things, with improved throughput of patients, improved patient satisfaction, and improved staff satisfaction. The key? They gave the doctors control over decision-making, gave them 49% of the shares in the trust, and encouraged them to innovate.

In healthcare it is standard practice to measure success using short- and long-term outcomes, as well as intangibles like patient and staff satisfaction. Charles wondered whether such a system could be imported in to education.

Philip then explained the extra complexities in defining outcomes in education. The key difficulty is getting people to agree on a definition of “what is good education?” There are so many conflicting ideas of what a great school looks like. You have everything from selective grammar schools producing students with lots of exam success through to Steiner schools who produce extremely rounded individuals. He then gave us some details about Steiner education (having studied it in some depth), and we agreed that it would be difficult to produce measures of success within that system that could also be used with the grammar school.

This thought-provoking conversation (which moved through a large number of similarly interesting topics) really made me think about what it is that makes some parents choose a Steiner education for their children. Is it because they are taking the long view? Do they essentially trust the school to manage the process so long as their children emerge as rounded, happy, confident and competent adults who can be successful in their lives?

I suspect, in many ways, that is what we are all asking for from education. The trouble is, we have become bogged down with the current measures. Exams were supposed to tell us how successful schools and students were at moving from unformed child to this ideal adult. Somehow, along the way, we now see the exam itself as the outcome, as the measure of success.

So what if we started measuring long-term outcomes? What do you think the results would be if we could devise a measure of happiness and success in adults (and how would we do it)? I think it would be revolutionary.

If the government could produce this measure, and scrap all others, then you could set schools and teachers free to produce the adults that we are all after. Tweaking measures of exams will make barely any difference at all. What we want are long-term measures, like the NHS. Where is education’s version of the 10-year survival rate?

2 Replies to “What do we really want from education?”

  1. Thanks for this, David. I’m fairly sure that the answer to ‘why do we only focus on what can easily be measured in education?’ has a lot to do with 5-year parliaments.

    Time to hand education over to the professionals, methinks.

  2. This is precisely why I am already explaining to my daughter (7) that the ‘character reports’ we get back from her school are – and always will be – more important to us that her ‘academic reports’ and marks, and that we will always judge her by her effort/input rather than how that is reflected back by their partial and limited means. This is our way of protecting her against the inevitable pressure she will come under to perform against measures that are only partially under her control. The only reason we would pay to have either of our kids educated would be to opt out of a one-dimensional system focused on spurious measures of certain types of performance, and into one that valued them for who they are, what they bring, and what they do (like Steiner, for example). Luckily for us, their current schools properly understand the business they’re in. And I’ve been working hard as a governor for 6 years now at their future secondary to help it gain the confidence it needs to follow its own convictions too. That’s a tougher job, admittedly, but is greatly helped by my (and now their) involvement with Whole Education, and now as an academy with the CfBT partnership of schools.

    So, you’re absolutely right that we need to hand back control to schools to innovate, achieving a set of aims designed on the basis of their own definition of what they are really for. This requires the rest of us to place complete trust in their professional judgement, and ensure that all the resources the state and private sectors have to offer at at their disposal.

Leave a Reply