Is it appropriate to expect a social return on investment when considering education?

 

This post is one of a series linked to The Logic Model – getting a social return on investement?

I’m sure there will be many people who will recoil at the very notion of trying to measure the social return on the investment in education.

The reason for such a strong reaction is difficult to capture here but at its heart lies a deeply held belief that education is not a product nor a service but an inalienable right for every human being. Such lofty ideals lie beyond any crude reductionist attempt to limit it to the relationship between the investment and the return on that investment.  Surely one cannot possibly capture the relationships, the tiny interactions between teacher and learner, between learner and learner. Nor can we possibly measure the outcomes of the hidden curriculum. If such important elements of the educational experience cannot be measured then the danger must exist that we only attend to the things that we can measure and the quality of the educational experience would be all the more limited by that narrowing.

 In many ways I can agree with such sentiments and I think it’s important to keep in mind the last sentence of the preceding paragraph if the Logic Model is to be applied to education. Nevertheless, nations throughout the world, governments, local/district systems and schools make huge financial investments in education – all with a view to making a beneficial impact upon the social fabric of society. 

In Scotland total gross revenue expenditure on education was £4.6 billion in 2006-07 (the last year for which totals were available). 

Is it unreasonable to ask whether or not society is getting a reasonable social return on such a huge investment?

It’s the dichotomy which emerges in the system when considering these two opposing points of view i.e.

Most people would agree that society should expect a return from its investment in education.

When that tacit agreement is translated into an explicit attempt to measure that return it seems to cross the threshold of acceptability.

As I progress through the series of posts in this topic I can begin to tease out some of these issues and – hopefully – some solutions.

4 thoughts on “Is it appropriate to expect a social return on investment when considering education?

  1. > education is not a product nor a service but an inalienable right for every human being

    There are two major issues that I can think of, not the straw man complaint described above.

    1. The presumption that the investment, and the return, is *social*. There is considerable individual investment, and considerable individual return. Moreover, there is no a priori reason to expect these to be balanced – indeed, the individual return exceeds the effort (which is what makes it worth doing) at the expense of the social investment.

    2. There is no agreement on what constitutes “improvement”. For one person, “improvement” may include the spread of religiosity throughout society, while for another it may be the spread of reason. Some people ma value an elevated GNP, while another may measure improvement as greater harmony with the planet. With no common definition fo “improvement” there is no means to measure the social value o education – and a great danger that attempts to do so are thinly disguised attempts to impose a certain value set on society as a whole.

  2. I suppose the flip-side of the question (which may turn out to be more polyhedron- than coin-shaped) could be, “do most pupils feel that they receive an adequate return for their 11-13 years of compulsorily invested time?”

  3. Stephen

    Thanks – as ever – for your comments

    I’m not as confident as you are about the complaint being a straw man. I can foresee many involved in schooling having a very similar reaction to the idea of a social return on investment in education.

    Are you suggesting that because “improvement” is difficult to define that we shouldn’t seek to improve what we do in schools? Hopefully I can explore this in more detail as I work through these series of posts.

    Alan

    I think it’s critical that we build pupil opinion into how we judge the success of investments in education.

  4. > Are you suggesting that because “improvement” is difficult to define that we shouldn’t seek to improve what we do in schools?

    I’m not suggesting that it is difficult to define – I am suggesting that there is no single thing you can call ‘improvement’.

    I’m saying you shouldn’t use a term like “improvement” – you should state specifically what it is you want to increase in schools and then as whether *that* is something I woul or woul not seek to see in schools.

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