Thursday, 9 December 2010

Educated in the School of Life: Education through a Well-being Lens

This week the OECD has released another round of PISA results. PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, is one of the Organisation’s greatest success stories. It has had a profound influence on education policy in many countries and now captures headlines around the world when the latest data are released. Clear proof that measurements matter and can drive change.

PISA surveys 15 year olds in more than 70 countries to assess their performance in mathematics, science and reading. By producing comparable outcome measures of student performance in each area it has allowed countries to compare their education systems with those of their peers. And this has been a powerful motivator for reform.

But how do you judge if an education system is performing well? To answer that you must know what you are trying to achieve with an education system in the first place. And the more I think about this, the more I realise it is not such an easy question to answer.

Unless education systems are just glorified day care to help working parents, schools must surely be trying to ensure that the kids that come out of the other end are going to have better lives (or greater well-being) than if they hadn’t gone into the system in the first place. So a system is performing well if it somehow optimises the amount of well-being it can create for the resources (money and time) it uses. Of course, having a job and a pay packet is a key part of well-being for most of us, but it is not all that matters.

So far, so good. But how do you define ‘better lives’ or ‘greater well-being’ and how do you know what education contributes? This is where it becomes more complicated. There are some economists who argue that educational attainment (particularly at higher levels) is important primarily as a signalling tool to help employers hire smart people. In other words they argue, it doesn’t really matter what you learned in your degree but the fact you passed with a first class distinction means you are going to be a better choice at interview than the other guy who scraped a pass. If this is true, a degree seems quite an expensive IQ test.

Other economists try to quantify the value of education through looking at the higher income it can generate over a lifetime. The so called ‘lifetime labour income approach’ treats education as an investment, the return on which is higher income later in life. This approach has many merits, but ultimately it is quite depressing for anyone who sees education as valuable for reasons other than as a path to a bigger pay cheque.

Meanwhile, the OECD’s PISA aims to assess how well students have acquired “some of the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society”. This is a less mercenary approach and seems much more closely allied to well-being.

However, I still prefer the idea of viewing education as a means to greater well-being. Looking at education through a well-being lens might one day significantly change the way we think about our schools and what they teach and how it is taught. But, while this is fine in theory, it is not so easy to operationalise for two reasons. First, we don’t have a very good understanding of how education contributes to well-being because (and this is the second reason) … because in part we don’t have much of an understanding of what well-being is.

We know already that education contributes to many aspects of well-being but we don’t know quite why. Another fascinating piece of OECD research – the Social Outcomes of Learning – investigated just this. It looked at whether and how education contributes to other social ‘goods’. And the answers were interesting though really only scraped the surface. Educated people are healthier and not just because they are richer, but also because they are better able to assess risks and live healthier lifestyles. And there are intergenerational effects too. Educated parents can look after their kids better.

Education also goes hand in hand with increased civic and social engagement. Here the relationship appeared to be not just about what is learned, but also (partly) to do with the amount of time students spend in education.

Imagine if we had a clear understanding of the way in which education contributed to all the key aspects of well-being. And imagine if we decided to organise our education systems so as to maximise people’s lifetime well-being. Now imagine just how different the education systems of the future might be, and the extent to which resources might be reallocated (with schools taking a slice of the health and social cohesion budgets too).

Of course similar arguments could apply to other areas of policy when seen through a well-being lens. These are big questions, and they are unlikely to be answered any time soon. But they are fascinating and important. And they are proof, to my mind at least, that thinking about government through a well-being lens will, sooner or later, revolutionise public policy making. And then, and only then, might we truly have joined-up government.

Jon Hall

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