Haseena Farid: The measurement tail has been wagging the outcomes dog

Covid-19 has woken the world up and forced us to take stock of both what is failing in society and what is essential to our lives. There is not one part of our lives that this pandemic hasn’t touched, making us feel very uncertain about what kind of future we are heading towards. Often seen in times of great uncertainty is an opportunity for change. Since the lockdown I’ve been hearing far more conversations discussing how we want to live and what we want from a ‘new normal’, reappraising what we value most in society. Judging by how we have been living until now, I’m left wondering how we could have got it so wrong.

Take public services. Everyone agrees that essential workers have been busy keeping our country running during this public emergency, often at risk to their own health. But our reliance on their hard work has been present all along, so how is it we’ve managed to undervalue key public sector workers all this time?

Teachers fall firmly into this category. They are essential to a successful society and yet have been taken wholly for granted. Years of austerity in school funding combined with being accountable to an overbearing, often hostile managerial system has taken its toll, not only increasing the social and educational inequalities in schools, but also leading many teachers to breaking point. Feeling utterly hampered, unable to make any positive lasting change, teachers are leaving the profession in droves. A 2019 report by Ofsted found that along with unsupportive senior leaders, its own inspections were among the causes of poor teacher wellbeing.

Thankfully, the lockdown has driven home, at least to parents, that teachers are simply indispensable. In recent weeks there’s been renewed appreciation for their work not to mention admiration for the sheer number of roles they are asked to perform in the educational development and safeguarding of children. This will be no less apparent when teachers return to school with the huge task not only of catching up on teaching but also of supporting families dealing with a host of issues, from bereavement to housing and unemployment.

So it is very promising to see people from all parts of society calling for a new era for schools, starting with a reinstatement of our long overdue appreciation for teachers. However, for change to truly occur, the manner in which we measure educational outcomes must also fundamentally change.

For years now, schools have been forced to adopt short-term business-style KPIs (key performance indicators) measuring teaching quality. To make matters worse, schools are forced to compete with each other in league tables that are supposedly objective and transparent. This has led to the imposition of narrow, fixed targets. Just as in business, where shareholders oversee narrow KPIs (often with undesirable effects on investment activity), so bureaucratic oversight of school performance has instilled an unhealthy short-termist “targets culture”,  where the pressure to deliver on supposedly objective measures have come at the cost of longer-term educational outcomes.

Using short-term measures is unavoidable to get a handle on performance, be it in business or education. But to be useful, measures should be broad and representative of the overall purpose of the organisation, and ideally they should not be known in advance, so as not to distract from that purpose.

But as in other sectors, in education the measurement tail has been wagging the outcomes dog.

To make matters worse, targets culture has also undermined teacher wellbeing. This is bad enough in itself, but doubly so when you consider the impact of demoralised staff on education. Setting targets exerts great pressure on teachers, and therefore on pupils, and diverts both groups’ attention from longer-term drivers of learning. Activities considered beneficial to pupils’ wider educational experience – such as physical and mental health, social-emotional development, creativity and innovation – rarely feature in targets and are therefore often overlooked. This leaves pupils less likely to develop skills and aptitudes crucial for successful adult life. 

Nearly three-quarters of teachers and 84% of school leaders now describe themselves as “stressed”, and more than a third of education professionals have experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year. A 2017 National Children’s Bureau report on wellbeing in schools reported that ‘Teachers are also feeling the pressure to meet pupil attainment targets and have reported feeling increasingly stressed, suffering from low levels of morale as a result. Teachers say they want to be able to promote the emotional wellbeing of their students but lack the support and skills to do so’.

Stress and mental health problems are pushing many good teachers to leave the profession. A 2019 UCL study suggests that “sleeping problems, panic attacks and anxiety issues contributed to their [teachers] decision to leave [the teaching profession]’. Teachers also cite that they are unable to encourage active learning and frequently feel that they are failing their students. It’s not surprising then that schools are facing a burgeoning crisis in teacher recruitment and retention – finding it increasingly difficult to encourage newly qualified young people to enter the profession and keep hold of them. How can we expect schools to deliver high quality education if teachers are so demoralised that they leave the profession?

Business has been slowly learning these painful lessons. Appeasing shareholder demands for quarterly earnings by cutting back on resourcing, and pushing staff to work longer hours, has eroded morale and wellbeing in the private sector.  A Chartered Institute of Personnel Directors (CIPD) survey found that the number of people suffering from mental health problems at work, such as anxiety, stress and depression, has risen from a quarter to a third over the past five years. And yet fewer than one in 10 (8%) of UK organisations has a standalone wellbeing strategy. 

The importance of wellbeing for performance is being increasingly recognised within business management culture. Even before the lockdown there were growing calls for businesses to shift their focus back to longer term performance, with wellbeing becoming something of a leadership mantra. Many good businesses are introducing more holistic indicators that go beyond financial performance – metrics based on purpose, strategy, employee wellbeing and strategic capabilities.

Most businesses still have a targets culture. Targets can be useful where employees have autonomy, where they can exercise judgement and prioritise resources. Teachers rarely have this luxury, and instead are mandated as to what and how to teach. Burdening staff with targets, without granting them the tools to meet them, is a classic cause of stress.

Furthermore, we must not forget that most teachers enter the profession with a vocation, a calling to educate, develop and inspire young people. Vocational motivation, absent from most business settings, is a huge asset in education and yet seems to have been glaringly ignored.  As someone looking in from the outside, this seems deeply patronising to teachers, few of whom, in my interactions, require targets to try their very best by their pupils. 

So in my judgement, targets have no place in education. Short-term measures, on the other hand, are important because even a short period of underperformance can be costly for children’s education.  If there is a lesson that the education sector (from government through to school heads) can learn from the best of business culture, then it is to formulate broader, holistic and ideally dynamic measures.

I’m not proposing to suggest what these measures should be – this is a discussion to be had among all stakeholders. But what I will say is that what is measured will come to define the purpose of education, what schools are for. Business has the luxury of a profit-motive, which ultimately defines what activity they undertake; businesses can afford a degree of trial and error in setting KPIs. In schools, measure the wrong things, and education will suffer. As they say, what isn’t measured doesn’t count.

As schools start to reopen, this is our opportunity to ask what the purpose of education is. If one of its central tenets is to improve society and the lives of young people, then how can we ensure that these values are measured? As these outcomes are largely down to teachers, how can we truly appreciate their work? And, even with challenging policies in place and possibly amid further funding cuts as we escape lockdown and enter a recession, how can senior leadership find more equitable ways of running schools?

Schools that have already taken steps to invest in the health and wellbeing of their teachers and pupils, by building “social capital” and prioritising relationships amongst staff and pupils, are likely to be those we can look to first for answers. A more resilient and energised workforce will be far more ready to adapt and provide the necessary support to help pupils learn and thrive in a period of change.

Progressive businesses have understood the importance of monitoring the health of the working environment as a measure of long-term performance. As someone who isn’t in education but who has worked across many different organisations, often through periods of change, I have seen first-hand how too much emphasis on narrow short term targets quickly leads to many critical goals being overshadowed, and how this is often detrimental to the health of staff and therefore the organisation as a whole. Harnessing the right culture within a workplace requires all individuals to be heard. Where sustainable, trusting relationships are forged and wellbeing is fully embedded and prioritised as a key driver of performance, we know we’re on our way towards healthier workplaces and more productive organisations.

If this period has taught me anything, it is that essential workers are at the heart of our economy. We must put them first and value those who are expected to do much more than their vocation calls for. We must as a society appreciate and recognise that without the care and support of professionals like our teachers, it will be challenging for the next generation to stay well and focused. We must all make necessary adjustments to help our teachers to be heard, help them navigate through change and build an environment where they, as well as pupils, can flourish.

Haseena Farid (MInstF)

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Haseena Farid

Haseena Farid

Strategic consultant and Executive Coach. Helping organisations and leaders to build purposeful and impact-driven organisations. My background includes nearly two decades in fundraising and leadership roles within the not-for-profit and commercial sectors.

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