Defra has another go at indicators

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

Defra is reviewing the UK's sustainable development indicator set, and is seeking views on its proposals.  It says this ...

The Government has committed to measure and report our progress through a new set of sustainable development indicators.  The intention is that these will provide a high level transparent overview as to whether the UK is developing on a sustainable path [and] support our evidence base for policy development across Government.

Just so – except that such confidence is misplaced.  Looking at the existing sustainable development indicators shows the difficulties.  This is the current one for education …

The proportion of 19 year-olds with Level 2 qualifications and above

This has the considerable merit of being easy to measure, but what does it really tell you?  Only, perhaps, the proportion of 19 year-olds with Level 2 qualifications and above, where the link to sustainable development is tenuous at best, and it’s an act of some faith that this provides any measure that we’re developing on a sustainable pathway.  As Donella Meadows noted:

We try to measure what we value. We come to value what we measure.

So, maybe a better indicator would be the proportion of PhD theses that address sustainable development – except we can recall David Orr telling us that the problems were caused by people with PhDs.  Well, not quite, of course.  Orr is given to simplification.

We are supposed to have a second education indicator in the current set.  This one was to focus on ESD and has been "under development" for about 10 years, and still is.  Is this blank just because we weren’t any good at thinking about it?  Or because it’s impossible to create anything meaningful?  I lean to the latter view.  The UK’s new proposals sidestep all these problems quite brilliantly.  There is no mention of ESD, and even education just gets a passing nod.

Defra is proposing 12 headline, and 25 supplementary indicators.  It says that the 12 provisional headline indicators are high-level outcome measures, and capture priority issues for making economic, environmental and social progress in line with the UK sustainable development strategy’s ‘guiding principles’ of sustainable development:

living within the planet’s environmental limits;    ensuring a strong, healthy and just society;    achieving a sustainable economy;

promoting good governance;   using sound science responsibly.

The headline indicators are:

Economy Society Environment
  • Economic prosperity
  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Long term unemployment
  • Social Capital
  • Natural resource use
  • Poverty
  • Social mobility in adulthood
  • Wildlife & biodiversity
  • Knowledge & skills
  • Housing provision
  • Water availability

Those of you who think these things matter will have noticed that, in doing this, sustainable development has been split up into what many see as its component parts.  Sadly, in this Defra view, it never gets put back together.

The only reference to education is within the Economy headline indicator of knowledge & skills.  This is:

The value of knowledge and skills (as a proxy for human capital) per person of working age.

... where, human capital is defined as “the knowledge, skills, competencies and attributes embodied in individuals that facilitate the creation of personal, social and economic well-being” (OECD, 2001).  Rather ironically, OECD omits any reference to the environmental well-being which is at the heart of the issue here.  The UK measure uses a discounted lifetime labour income approach which is based on gender, age and the level of qualification acquired during participation in compulsory and post-compulsory, vocational or general education, tertiary education, etc.  None of this is straightforward, and there is no mention of ESD.

And you can see the problem immediately – it’s really just the same as the old level 2 qualifications indicator, though it is somewhat more sophisticated (I think I really mean complex).  This, especially taken with the limited view of human capital, means that a lifetime of education and training will count whether or not there is any focus on sustainable development which means that ESD counts for nothing.

As I hinted at the outset, there is a bigger problem.  It has been suggested that such headline indicators represent a sort of barometer or compass bearing.  For example, if all the indicators can be lined up so that they are all pointing in the right direction, then we can assume that we are making progress along the sustainable development pathway.  It’s a pleasing, and reassuring, metaphor.  However, there is a major problem with the whole approach.  ESRC-funded research that Bath and Lancaster were involved in, in 2004, noted this:

It is true if the headline indicators are broadly negative, we can tell that the overall position is not sustainable.  Unfortunately, this does not mean that when they are all positive, the position necessarily is sustainable.  Indeed, it is even possible that positive indicator results will operate perversely to move us off a sustainable pathway.

In other words, if you fail to meet an indicator, then you know there’s work to do; if you do meet it, there’s always uncertainty about whether the indicator was appropriate.  For example, if we were to succeed in keeping the global temperature rise below, say, 3o C, we’d still have to wait for years to see whether that was enough.  As the old cliché has it: only time will tell.  Does Defra know this?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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