Good policy is born of shrewd measurement

15th May 2009 at 01:00

Numbers matter. In a world where there are always more things to do than money to pay for it, good metrics help policy-makers to decide who gets what on a rational basis. That is what evidence-based policy means. However, choosing the right measures is the key to good policy-making. After all, as Einstein observed, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted is worth counting.

Each year, Adult Learners' Week (which we have been marking this week) provides an opportunity to reflect on adult participation and achievement in learning, on the balance of government policy, and on what can be learnt from people who have overcome obstacles and transformed their lives through adult learning.

There have been numbers aplenty to inform any debate. The industrial challenge was highlighted in Ambition 2020, a report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills published last week. It showed that Lord Leitch's ambitions - for the UK to be in the top quarter of the skills league table for the 30 richest countries by 2020 - remain challenging.

Despite real gains, the UK has slipped to sixth in the gross domestic product league table; we have the 12th highest proportion of highly skilled workers; we rank 18th for intermediate skills; and 16 other countries that belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have smaller proportions of low-skilled adults. The Government can point with pride to the numbers gaining level 2 (GCSE equivalent) qualifications and basic skills as a result of their rebalancing of funding since 2005. Yet, to achieve the Leitch aim to be among the top eight in each league, we have a very long way to go.

All well and good, but are these the right numbers to measure? Qualifications are important, certainly, but they are not enough; and skills are not the only measure of the learning needed for a healthy society. In the past 12 years of prosperity, we have slipped from 10th to 21st in the United Nations' human development index, which measures longevity, literacy rates and GDP.

Ambition 2020 also shows the UK is in the bottom quartile when you measure inequality by comparing rewards for the best and lowest paid. In the main, countries with high levels of productivity and employment are ones where the benefits of affluence (and opportunity) are shared most evenly.

The annual Niace survey on adult learning highlights not only who is benefiting from participation but also who isn't. This year's survey confirms the trend that, far from creating fairer access to learning, the sum of public, private and informal learning benefits those who did best first time around. Gains in basic skills and at level 2, which target the least skilled, have been bought at the expense of opportunities for a larger number of adults from the same communities.

Balancing intensive investment for some adults with diverse and accessible but more modest opportunities for the many cannot be done by central planning alone. Ambition 2020 is right that we need more responsive skills and, I would argue, education provision. That means more discretion for providers to maximise participation and progression, backed by a national participation measure.

Sixth formers and university students are trusted to decide what is worth studying. If we want a learning society for all, with the flexibility to meet challenges of changing economies, and the pressures they generate for community and family life, we need to extend that trust to adult learners everywhere.

Alan Tuckett, Chief executive, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

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