Measuring success in education

hatThe new school year is here. Teachers are firing up the teaching synapses that have been dormant for 6 weeks, trying to remember logon details, facing new classes, new kids and an influx of new colleagues. There are a whole new set of names to learn, personalities to discover and new opportunities to make that difference.

The kids are excited to see each other and catch up, whilst those who’ve just arrived at “big school” are nervous and quiet, hidden deep within the oversized uniforms bought with longevity in mind.

As this period of excitement and inquisitiveness dawns upon us again, it feels right to pose a crucial question; what are we actually trying to achieve with education?

You’d be excused for thinking that academic achievement is all that matters. The Department for Education’s performance tables show many charts on academic achievement alongside one table on pupil absence and one on post-16 destinations of secondary school pupils. The OFSTED inspection framework considers achievement alongside the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, but the latter four are monitored irregularly through inspections alone against a bewildering 35-page guidance document.

A quick tweet asking for views on what schools should be striving to achieve for their pupils led to many interesting thoughts. A fantastic SSAT report makes the case for pro-social (cultivating attitudes of a good friend/neighbour/citizen) and epistemic outcomes (the qualities of mind required to be a powerful learner – yes, it’s an addition to my vocabulary as well!) and sets out 8 principles around which schools could be re-designed to drive these outcomes. @jamesanoble of NPC points out that most theories of change in education focus on aspirations, confidence, self esteem and quality of relationships. @dajbelshaw makes the case for happiness and flourishing.

Elsewhere, Nicky Morgan, the new Secretary of State for Education, points out in a letter to her opposition, Tristram Hunt, that education should prepare young people for “a happy and fulfilling life”.

So, it’s clear that although examination success is one of the factors of educational success, it is not the only factor. Even as I’m writing this blog I’m delighted to see Estelle Morris’s piece in the Guardian 3346044174_4f1a6a3945_owarning that there is undue focus on exam results alone.

So, painful as it is, we need to admit that we’re not measuring or valuing success in education in the right way. And, what’s worse; until we do, we will never get better at educating our young people.

In fact, it would seem we’re falling behind the curve as a nation in considering wider educational outcomes. Countries including Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland are re-designing national educational outcome frameworks to include personal qualities.  For example, Singapore now focuses its education system upon supporting young people to become confident, self-directed learners who are active contributors. It looks like a global education revolution is starting without us.

So, step forward the brave souls who are willing to try and set out what a complete framework of outcomes for young people might look like. Enter NPC (with the Journey to Employment Framework) and The Young Foundation (with their Framework of Outcomes for Young People), whilst Impetus-PEF are about to launch their Ready for Work framework, which sets out the soft skills that will be essential to finding and thriving within employment.

None of these frameworks claim to be definitive (and none of them are) but what they do make clear is that we need to quickly understand how we develop the social, emotional, cognitive and physical capabilities of young people if they are to reach their potential in school and their lives beyond.

Entrepreneurial social sector organisations working in schools, including the likes of Teach First,Place2Be and Greenhouse, already recognise the role of these capabilities in driving outcomes for young people (including exam success), and keenly focus their practitioners on developing these skills. But, this approach needs to become part of the mainstream.

So where can we go from here?

Well, the first step is to admit that our current measurement of educational success is one dimensional and not fit for purpose. Once we’re through that, let the conversation commence as to how we make it better. But let’s make it quick, as next year another group of kids will arrive looking small in their oversized uniforms and we owe it to them to have upped our game by then.

by Graeme Duncan – Entrepreneur in Residence, Nesta Impact Investments

© 2023 Nesta. Nesta is a registered charity in England and Wales 1144091 and Scotland SC042833. Our main address is 58 Victoria Embankment, London, EC4Y 0DS.
You can drop us a line at
All our work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, unless it says otherwise. We hope you find it useful.