The price of everything and the value of nothing

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Oscar Wilde may have been writing about cynics in the late nineteenth century, but the same could be said of some politicians and civil servants today.

Improvements in data recording mean that it is easier than ever to collect, compile and report on statistics.  These statistics in turn shape ‘SMART’ targets and form the basis of performance tables.  Many such ‘league tables’ can be helpful measures, providing useful snap shots about the quality of a service.  However, services such as health and education that have both quantitative and qualitative dimensions  need to be evaluated on a league table plus basis.

Judging schools by their public exam results is a perfectly rational act.  However, headline percentages for  A*-A grades at GCSE scores do not in themselves show whether a school and its pupils are doing well.  A highly selective school should achieve excellent exam results because its pupils are academically talented.

Public exam results are only partial measures of what schools deliver.  Most of us over the age of 40 struggle to remember the content of our ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exams, and whilst the grades achieved may have helped us into higher education and a first job their use quickly dissipated thereafter.

Former students often tell me that it is the other skills and qualities they learnt at school that have stood the test of time and helped them through careers and adult lives.  Qualities such as team working, problem solving, leadership, resilience and intellectual curiosity.  The last is particularly important but very difficult to measure.

Children who have been given a love of learning usually develop into intellectually curious adults: adults whose lives are enriched by a questioning philosophy and a desire to find out more; adults who can see interest and wonder in the most unlikely topics and have a thirst for knowledge.  The intellectually curious live enriching “3D” lives full of stimulating thoughts that give great pleasure.

Developing intellectual curiosity is one of the greatest gifts a school can give.  It doesn’t lend itself to easy measurement but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.  One surrogate measure could be the vibrancy of a school’s visiting speaker programme.  On a dry day last week a speaker posing the question ‘Was Karl Marx partly right?’ drew a voluntary lunchtime audience of over 150 in the Perse lecture theatre.  Such an indicator won’t feature in any government league table, but it says something important about a school’s intellectual life.

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