The Measuring Game

From David Pavett, FE and sixth form teacher, former NATFHE officer and recent author of a study of Labour’s policy processes 

Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.                                                                                                         (Albert Einstein)

Whenever a system for measuring something is devised, attention tends to switch from that thing to the measuring system. This can have a whole series of negative consequences.

Babies are measured to check which percentile they are in for weight, height/length and head circumference. One of the problems arising from this is the idea that the 50th percentile is some kind of ideal. A mother who is told that her child is in the 25th percentile then thinks she has something to worry about. Some health workers are not entirely free from this misconception. To counter this, the NHS has decided to stop emphasising 50th percentile on its graphs.

It’s not just a question of individual misunderstanding. There can be organisational consequences. We have all read accounts of the ways in which hospitals have sought to manipulate data recording so that the waiting time for operations can appear to be lower even though nothing has changed in reality.

Even so, we have to measure and, therefore, must have measurement systems. But education is plagued with excessive demands for measurements used to judge the educational achievements of pupils, teachers and schools. The result is that people start to focus on the measurement rather than on the reality of which they are a (very) partial reflection.


I was reminded of this problem when helping a neighbour’s son with GCSE maths trigonometry. When he had understood the basic ideas he tackled some problems. He worked out a result and got the final answer using his calculator. The problem was that although he did his best to follow the rules he got an absurd result (the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle was less than one of the other sides). I explained to him that his maths would be a lot more sure-footed if he constantly switched between the results of his calculations and the reality of the thing those calculations were about (a right-angled triangle in this instance).

Is this not something that applies to education generally? Rising GCSE results are held to be a triumph but what does that actually reflect educationally? There are two major problems. The first is that schools are scrabbling to score high on the measure of five GCSEs at C or above including maths and English. What does this tell us about a pupil’s broad education? If the other three GCSE are, for example, a foreign language, and two sciences, then what does that tell us about education in history, music and art?

And then there is a question about what sort of knowledge is produced in each subject area from the ever-increasing pressure to teach to the test. As far as I could tell from the maths notebook of my neighbour’s son, maths was being taught as a series of tricks without any feel for real mathematical thinking. It is highly likely that the great majority of those who get a C or above in GCSE maths do not retain (in subsequent years) anything that they have learned in 10 years of schooling beyond basic arithmetic. What sense does this make?

Current structures and pressures are producing a situation in which the real object of education is fading into the background due to the requirement to produce ever-better measurement results. This suggests to me first that the present examination system is woefully inadequate to the task of recording educational achievement and second, that Michael Gove’s desire to take us back to the alleged glories of an earlier examination system can only make things worse.


2 Comments on “The Measuring Game”

  1. Paul Martin says:

    Your phrase “the present examination system is woefully inadequate to the task of recording educational achievement” seems precisely correct to me.
    Recently, Private Eye included a snide remark about content from a Foundation Learning programme. No surprise at the Eye’s tone, but I wondered whether the writer had any idea that the students in question probably had Moderate Learning Difficulties of some kind. The trouble is, so many commentators forget what an enormous range of abilities need to be covered at around the ages of 16-19.
    Of course, we know that Gove and his pals aren’t really interested in the section of the population for whom O-Levels would be just a kind of cruel and unusual punishment. However, I worry that even more liberal-minded people simply don’t recognise the need for there to be measures of SUCCESS for all types of ability.

    • David Pavett says:

      I always liked the title of an essay I read years ago (or was it the title of a book): it was Education for Democracy.

      Do we believe in democracy? If we do then what level of competence can reasonably be assumed of the voters in a modern liberal democracy? We want them to be able to read, listen, think and discuss the contending views. What level of competence in the three R’s is required for that? What should a voter know minimally about history and politics to be able to vote intelligently? Politicians argue about such things a the level of subsidy for the arts. What level of appreciation of the arts is required to think about an answer, or to appreciate the different answers provided by others. And let us not forget education. This is a vast budget item in all modern democracies. It is a political hot potato. How educated do you need to be to think for yourself about the politics of education? I could go on but I fancy that my point is clear. Clearly we are all different and attain different levels of competence in various things. Does the effective exercise of democracy not assume a certain minimal level of competence on the part of all voters? If it does then should that not guide both the content of general education and the tests we devise to see if understanding of that content has reached an appropriate level?