'In an age of measurement, what counts as a good education?'

David Corke

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It often seems that our obsession with measuring education outcomes, in order to compare performance within and between countries, displaces important questions about the purpose of education. We must continue to ask ourselves what constitutes a "good education" in an age of measurement, as described by Gert Biesta, a professor of Education at Brunel University, London, in 2010. We must also be mindful that the characteristics of "good" technical and professional education are in many respects different to the characteristics of "good" academic education. It is therefore not always helpful to compare the two.

Newly developed experimental outcome-based success measures were announced last year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) as a replacement for, and evolution from, success rates, which measure the number of students who start a course and what they go on to achieve. These are a mixed bag, built by taking student data and matching it to other government sources such as receipt of benefits to determine the percentage of adults in sustained learning, employment or benefits after undertaking a qualification.

This transition from output to outcome-based measures is, in principle, a positive change. Outcome-orientated measures can initiate a more open dialogue about what students do after college rather than just focusing on grades. But, as Biesta asserts, they can never fully explain the true value of any qualification or qualification type over another.

To illustrate the point, Bis experimental data predictably shows that level 3 courses (equivalent to A-levels) lead to much better levels of sustained employment than English courses for speakers of other languages (Esol). This is great for level 3 courses but how are such measures useful with regards to Esol courses? The dual mandate consultation published by Bis before purdah says that colleges have two responsibilities. This includes being mindful of their role to deliver skills that help drive the economy forward as well as those skills that have a social purpose.

We do not want to get in to a debate here about whether or not an A-level student or market-ready engineer is worth more than helping someone to improve their writing, speaking and listening skills in order to better integrate themselves better into society. It's not about their value relative to one and other; it's about them being valued differently and both being necessary.

Further education colleges are providing high-quality technical and professional education and training for young people and adults. However, we mustn't forget that it is businesses that drives forward demand for new jobs and skills. Sometimes people are locked into low-skilled work through no fault of their own. In other words, context matters. In short, what counts as a good outcome measure in one town or city, might be considered poor in another.

It is our belief and understanding that most colleges, of all types, fare rather well when measured by outcome rather than output-based measures, and colleges can of course determine this for themselves by looking at the experimental data.

Good or bad, these measures, should they be fully implemented, will ignite a fresh and more sophisticated debate about what we all consider to be good.

David Corke is director of education and skills policy at the Association of Colleges

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