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Numbers and Stories

The usual clichés of the exam season are all too apparent; pictures of smiling, blond female (usually) students, brandishing pieces of paper of uncertain provenance and shrieking with delight at seemingly having gained huge numbers of A* grades, festoon the newspapers and websites.  On the other hand the small reduction in the percentage of top grades awarded this year has dimmed the volume of the ritual chanting of ‘it was much harder in my day’ and the swing towards students taking more traditional, facilitating A level subjects has muted the customary chorus of ‘media studies’ jibes.

The compilation of league tables, however, is in full swing.
Several blogs and articles have pointed me towards the McNamara fallacy recently.  This concerns the over reliance upon measurable data to form judgements and the name stems from Robert McNamara, US Defence Secretary during the Vietnam War.  McNamara tended to look solely at death rates amongst enemy combatants to judge the effectiveness of strategy and as a means of informing future decisions.  He had previously been an incredibly successful Chairman of the Ford Motor Company where presumably he had come to rely upon numerical data to assure commercial success.  McNamara appears to have been less successful in leading military operations in South East Asia.  The fallacy may be summarised as:
The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.
—Daniel Yankelovich "Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business." (1972)
Clearly examination results are very important; good grades allow students a wide range of opportunities for future study and employment and parents choosing schools are certainly entitled to see the results of a school before they make the commitment of sending their offspring there.  Equally, there are many facets of education that cannot be simply and tidily encapsulated in a few numbers; the attempt to reduce the school experience and achievements of a diverse cohort of students to a single percentage is doomed to failure.  How can the community spirit, the quality and level of involvement in extra-curricular activities or the moral sense of the students possibly be reduced to a number, however sophisticated the algorithm?  Most students, parents and teachers would agree that this qualitative information is crucial for the success of the educational process; no league table can do justice to this although a visit to a school and a chat with current students quickly reveals success or failure. 
Some maintained sector head teachers feel under enormous pressure to distort the educational priorities of their schools to secure better league table positions and have become so frustrated that they are producing their own league tables to give a broader picture.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28761273 .  Whilst I understand their motivation I wonder whether presenting tables showing the number of hours an average student spends on, for example, extra-curricular music can really address this problem; the chosen metric has little to say about the approach of the student, the standard reached or the joy of the experience.  In addition, perhaps the attempt to quantify the hard to measure will cause parents to rely still more upon ‘the tables’ rather than on probing the experiences of students.
Even the employers’ organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), not usually known as a defender of liberal education, has now realised the pitfalls of an accountability system for schools which only values examination results.  http://www.cbi.org.uk/media/2855199/future-possible.pdf .  Employers certainly value technical knowledge but now also recognise the importance of ‘character’, defined by the CBI as possessing the qualities of curiosity, a positive approach, resilience, team work skills and the willingness to ‘go the extra mile’.  None of these attributes are readily quantifiable but all are crucial for professional success.  A broad and balanced education which gives ample opportunities for students to participate in extra-curricular activities and in the wider life of the school community will allow young men and women to develop these qualities.
What is needed is not a suppression of league tables but some recognition that education is a subjective and human activity; the students and their achievements can only be adequately summarised in their stories and not in a set of numbers.  Universities know this only too well and still value the school reference and the student’s personal statement alongside A level grade predictions when considering making offers for undergraduate places.  We crave the apparent certainties offered by simple, objective measures but neglect, as McNamara did, the more complex, subjective measures of success at our peril.

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