What is expected of the new Education Secretary.? The short answer is that she will be expected to ensure that the performance of our system, and  the schools and students  within our system, improves against established , measurable outcomes  . The drive will be, as ever ,to improve the performance of all our students, but, particularly,  the most disadvantaged and to ensure that the gap between them and their peers narrows significantly.  We have the outcome measures and  measurable deliverables in place.

But, as  Sian Townson,  a writer, scientist and academic, at the University of Edinburgh reminds us (in the Daily  Telegraph 19 May )  ‘science tells us that when you focus on the outcome measures, the process is affected: people start to train for the measures directly, rather than the measures being indicative of correct training. These measures are not conducive to education.’ (see notes below)

When she  is talking about education, she means a rounded education, one that nurtures ‘creative ‘ and ‘ imaginative thinking’. Children are drilled in stuff that can easily be assessed but ‘that is not how you inspire or educate’ young people . This criticism is hardly new. Many commentators have suggested that we force our teachers to teach for the test,  that there is not enough time set aside  for truly educating the child , too much time is spent  on assessed academic subjects,   so schools are little more than  exam factories ;  and we only value what we can easily measure,   and so on.

There is a problem, Townson says, because of the ‘prevailing motivational climate’. The argument is that with all these measurable outcomes, ranking and league tables there really isn’t enough autonomy (we have controlled autonomy) to allow schools to really  educate, in the true sense of the word ,our children.   In short, schools really aren’t that autonomous. (True)

Here is how Townson expresses the kernel of the problem -which is essentially, to her, about the wrong controlling environment:

‘Within developmental and education research there is a pillar called self- determination theory. It states that in order to fulfil our basic needs we need to create the right sort of environment. The desirable environment is autonomy-supportive (non-controlling), defined by having provision of choice, rationales for imposed structures, recognition of participant’s feelings and perspectives, frequent opportunities to display initiative, useful feedback, no overt control and criticism, an appropriate reward system and the avoidance of ego-involvement such as rankings.

When supervised externally, and hence assessed and ranked by outcome measures, our schools meet the opposite criteria – that of a controlling environment for both the teachers and the pupils.

This is the environment that studies have shown to cause stress, poor performance and burnout, again not just for the teachers but for the very pupils that we’re meant to improve.

Increased autonomy has been attempted with private schools, faith schools and academies, but they haven’t escaped the league-table battles and so haven’t avoided the controlling motivational climate. A central education policy is needed, one that has the courage to sidestep the rankings. Here in the UK we have world-class potential not just in education but in educational research and theory. It’s time to practise what we preach.’

So, what are the chances of the accountability framework or ‘controlling motivational environment’ changing any time soon?  Not great. Maybe a bit on the margins, at a push. But if  we are serious about improving the education offer, of helping to develop character and  support the development of non-cognitive skills in our children (for which there is a clear demand  both at universities and in the work place), we really have to think a little  harder about how we  build the right enabling environment, and  ensure that there are   incentives in the system ,to deliver the outcomes we want. .


Note- Campbells and Goodharts Laws

Campbell’s law is an adage developed by Donald T. Campbell(1976)

“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Goodhart’s law is named after the banker who originated it, Charles Goodhart. Its most popular formulation is: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”  Or ‘Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.’

(Goodhart’s original 1975 formulation)




  1. Improvement against measurable outcomes is all well and good when the measures are objective, or at least not disputed. We are not in this position currently. Data is designed, selected and interpreted for different purposes by different agencies.

    According to the PAC report in January 2015, “Of the schools rated ‘inadequate’ in 2012/13, 36% had previously been rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’…Of schools inspected by Ofsted in 2012/13, 48% of those which had received some kind of formal intervention improved at their next inspection. The remainder stayed the same or deteriorated, with the apparent impact of different interventions varying significantly. Meanwhile, 59% of schools that received no formal intervention also improved.” Based on this data, it’s hard not to conclude leave schools alone and they’ll improve anyhow.

    When the measures used are this unstable: we should be rethinking what we measure. I would like to see schools independently designing measures of the quality of their own teaching, that do not rely on exam results. Even initiating that conversation in schools where it is most needed, is likely to lead to better schools.

  2. ​Peter Chambers, Publications Editor, SSAT
    +44(0)1600 719565
    Sunnyside, Buckholt, Monmouth NP25 5RJ, UK
    Head office: 5th Floor, 142 Central St, London EC1V 8AR

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