I believe that most schools see their job as preparing young people to make the best of their lives. This is a difficult thing to measure; even harder to put into a league table. The trouble is that we all want different things from our lives: to get a good job, to understand the world we live in, to take control of our destiny, to be creative and appreciate creativity.
Sadly, as happens all too often, difficulties in measuring what we really want to achieve lead us to seek proxies – measures that are simpler, shorter and more tangible. The proxies take on a life of their own and crowd out the original purpose. Organisations adapt themselves to “game” the proxy measure and eventually we have completely lost sight of where we began.
This is true of exams and it will become true of destination measures, which have returned to the agenda with the publication of the report of Labour’s Skills Task Force.
The ultimate measure of the success of a school is what pupils go on to achieve with their lives. This measure is confounded by the fact that young people rightly want to achieve many different things, that they themselves have a responsibility to make the most of their talents, and that the opportunities available to them are governed by the economy and social policies outside any school’s control. Schools are part of the picture.
Possible destination data includes the number of students that go to university; this is also shaped by the availability of local institutions, perceived return on investment to study and government policy on student loans.
Other data include those in employment and training; this also depends on vacancies in the local economy and the provision of Apprenticeships and training.
Lifetime income is a fascinating long-term measure with the attraction of being quantifiable. The difficulty is that maximising income is not the sole purpose of education and that the results only become clear long after the current management of the school has moved on.
Thinking about destinations, about success in life after school, is the right direction. It moves us away from the narrow proxies like exam results and sees them as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. It helps us take account of the risks entailed by focusing on one or two measures of performance.
However, to use it, we would need highly sophisticated “family of schools” information, enabling schools to benchmark themselves against comparable institutions for local and national economic and social conditions. This is not impossible but is not likely to produce the sort of easily digestible statistics that politicians like to use.
Ultimately, and we see this so often in education, the validity of the measure depends on the stakes attached to that measure.
If thinking about destinations is part of the moral code of the profession, and used to learn and improve, it would be powerful. It shows that schools are committed to helping young people make the most of the opportunities they face and don’t “let go” until they have moved into the next phase of their life successfully.
If schools rise and fall in league tables as result of the data, if leaders are hired and fired on the data, it will become worthless – just as the data on hospital waiting times has become; just as the data on bank profitable became shortly before the financial crash. What will be the education equivalent of leaving people in ambulances or selling bad mortgages?
Education lacks a measure of risk, of what may be lost when we focus on one measure – for example, when we cram people for exams they may attain high grades but lose the love of their subject or the ability to learn independently. Thinking broadly about destinations captures that risk, because it forces us to ask whether people were well equipped for everything that faces them. Thinking narrowly about destination data will just compound the problem.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk