A topic which has caused acute anxiety since the inception of performance tables in the UK in 1992 is that of how we should measure success in education. Educators and reformers have been talking about improving the system of measuring success for years. In 2013, O’Neill wrote about the idea of ‘Intelligent Accountability’, highlighting the need to make stakeholders more literate so they can more fairly and reliably compare institutions and, more recently, Dann has described her ‘Seven principles for a fair and relevant assessment system’ (2018), underlining the need for a clearer purpose and a broader approach to examinations.
But what if all of these tweaks only served to make matters worse? After all, there has been a growing pressure for schools to perform at a national and international level when compared on the TIMSS and PIRLS databases, and therefore a narrowing of focus to those subjects which are considered a priority as they form part of this data set, such as mathematics and science. This has been much to the chagrin of linguists, such as myself, who saw the decision in the UK to scrap compulsory foreign languages back in 2004 in order to focus on STEM, demonstrating how the ‘long shadow of accountability’ (Stobart, 2008) can often have more sinister, albeit unintended, consequences. Biesta (2010) has summed it up succinctly when he claimed that we end up valuing what we measure rather than measuring what we value in a sad, educational perversion of the economist’s Goodhart’s Law. And, most recently, given Ofqual’s failed algorithm in the summer of 2020, followed by the stress and the perturbation amongst the teaching community with the onset of ‘teacher assessed grades’ this year, it is clear that the desire for results – and how to get there – has overridden any sense of educational integrity and therefore the way we measure success is in need, not just of a minor tweak, but a whole overhaul.
To return to the main purpose of education, as a linguist I feel it is important to go back to the roots of language. After all, the very word ‘education’ comes from the Greek ‘educere’ meaning ‘to bring out’ or the ability to develop potential. Therefore, education should be seen as a process and not just an outcome. Linguistically, we might also want to consider how the notions of Korczak’s ‘haltung’ (‘attitude’) or Aristotle’s ‘praxis’ (‘process’) also relate to the percentage of A*-C grades …
More recently, the notion that pupils are more than mere servants of the state, to be pumped full of information so they can enter a homogenised workforce, has chimed with developments in neuroscience which underline human beings as essentially social animals and therefore teachers have been encouraged to focus on establishing positive and meaningful relationships with pupils rather than enforce rote learning and teaching to the test. This is not to diminish the importance of ‘powerful knowledge’, as coined by Michael Young (2014), and the need for pupils to learn information, however it is the fact that the process to get there has often been distorted.
So how should we re-boot the system? Well, why not abolish high-stakes examinations altogether? With a typical UK pupil taking over 100 external assessments if they stay in school until age 18 (Stobart, 2008, p. 29), many have called for the scrapping of these examinations in their entirety (White, 2018). But if examination results are not the sole way of measuring success, then what should the purpose and drive of education be, if not academic? In my first lecture as a student teacher, the lecturer asked us whether we wanted to teach our subject or if we wanted to teach children. It was surprising how many chose the former, to the exclusion of the latter. In my mind, pastoral care is at the heart of education and academic success cannot sit as a mutually exclusive element within this. Ofsted have recently recognised this, putting staff and student wellbeing at the forefront of their new Education Inspection Framework in 2019, in a somewhat belated reaction to a growing mental health crisis in education – a report by the charity Young Minds (2017) estimates that three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem.
There are already examples of alternative schooling which have demonstrated a more proactive and philosophical approach to education, such as primary Forest Schools and secondary Waldorf (or Steiner) Schools, both of which encourage a different educational outlook. From the former, we can take heart in the central purpose of nature in education, especially important given recent discussions on both a societal and international level surrounding the threat of global warming. The latter, through the fact that teachers and schools are allowed more autonomy to determine their curriculum content, tailored to their pupils’ needs, and with quantitative assessments limited only to what is required to enter tertiary education, is also a far cry from the scrabble for data points ahead of this summer’s grading process.
However, these alternatives have always been at the educational fringe of policy with parents and teachers considering their methods quirky at best – or damaging at worst. In 2005, the Department for Education and Skills did recognise in a report that mainstream schooling in the U.K. could learn from Waldorf Schools. However, the fact that this research has not been subsequently endorsed indicates a reluctance to engage in a serious discourse relating to different methods of schooling. Yet if the recent changes to education brought on by Covid-19 and the move to remote teaching and learning has taught us anything, it is that the educational paradigm can be re-designed when there is a will.
Which brings us back to our final question – if we are to embrace this more holistic vision of education, encompassing not just results but the individual, how should it be measured? Firstly, why can we not consider ‘happiness’ as a goal in itself, measuring our success along such lines as advocated by the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham? For those in need of quantifiable data, there already exists a plethora of happiness measurement scales such as the Cantril Ladder Method, as employed by the UN when compiling their annual World Happiness Report. Given that the UK currently ranks 13th in the world in 2020, our politicians could clearly use this as a starting point to encourage a better system of measuring success at school, so we can eventually reach the dizzy heights of Finland’s society in 1st place.
If this is still too prescriptive for your taste, then why not measure our educational success by comparing other societal issues? For instance, if we are to embrace the teaching of empathy and intellectual curiosity in our education system, then how about we look at declining crime rates or the increase of those who voluntarily stay in some form of education? As regards the latter, given that current government figures from February 2020 estimate that the NEET rate (not in education, employment or training) is 11.1% amongst the 16-24-year-old population, then this would suggest that there is still clearly ground to be made here. On a global scale, other countries have already adopted more comprehensive and integrated ways of measuring societal outcomes, such as the introduction of a Wellbeing Budget in New Zealand in 2019 and Bhutan’s first Gross National Happiness survey in 2008, thereby underlining the possibilities for ministers and educators in this country to see educational results differently, not least since David Cameron’s idea of Gross Domestic Happiness back in 2010 has seemingly fallen by the wayside…
To conclude, data itself is not the enemy. The issue is that we are currently limiting our use of data – and therefore how schools are held accountable – to a very narrow scope: examination results. Instead, we should be connecting the dots and seeing how a school fits into our wider society and looking at other ways of measuring success, and therefore holding educators to account, in a more meaningful, and hopefully longer-lasting, way.
- How should we measure success in education?
- How should a more holistic vision of education be held accountable?
Adrianopoulos A and Brennan, S. (2017) ‘Wise Up: Prioritising Wellbeing in Schools’. Young Minds, April. Available at: https://youngminds.org.uk/resources/policy-reports/wise-up-prioritising-wellbeing-in-schools/ (accessed 4 May 2021).
Biesta G (2010) Good Education in an Age of Measurement. Oxon: Routledge
Dann R (2018) ‘Seven principles for a fair and relevant assessment system’. In: IOE London Blog, 13 November. Available at: https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/seven-principles-for-a-fair-and-relevant-assessment-system/ (accessed 4 May 2021).
O’Neill O (2013) Intelligent accountability in education. Oxford Review of Education 39(1): 4–16.
Stobart G (2008) Testing Times: The Uses and Abuses of Assessment. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.
White J (2018) We could end exam distress by removing the root cause: Exams. In: IOE London Blog, 19 June. Available at: https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/we-could-end-exam-distress-by-removing-the-root-cause-exams/ (accessed 5 May 2021).
Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C et al. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury.