Measuring education and wellbeing

I’ve spent the last four days in lively discussions of adult education and wellbeing. Hosted by the University of Leicester, Britain’s annual adult education research conference was investigating the evidence, concepts and policy and institutional environments in which learning and wellbeing work out. A simple twist of fate meant that we were leaving Leicester just as the Office for National Statistics published its study of education and wellbeing.

ONS has been working on this subject for some years. Before 2010, the then Labour government commissioned a major study of Mental Capital and Wellbeing that made a number of recommendations on future policy directions. After 2010, David Cameron made much of his interest in measuring happiness, with the aim of producing an index of gross national happiness that would complement more conventional economic measures of national performance.

In fact, we already know a lot about how to measure wellbeing. I am particularly impressed by the work of the New Economics Foundation, who contributed to the Foresight report, and have since worked up a series of national accounts of wellbeing. Drawing on social attitudes surveys, for example, NEF has shown that young people in Britain have the lowest levels of trust and wellbeing of any European nation. Talk about storing up problems for the future!

What does the ONS report add to our knowledge? The short answer is not much. ONS has essentially brought a range of education indicators together in one place, covering the life course from early years learning to adult education. None of these is in itself new, but this is one of the rare occasions on which government looks at education across the life course in a consistent and systematic manner.

ONS also compares Britain with the rest of the EU on many of the indicators, and like much earlier research it shows that we tend to come above the average, but are well behind most of the small Nordic nations. In spite of the prime minister’s enthusiasm for happiness indicators, I think it highly likely that his education policies will bring us safely below the EU average, and enlarge the gap with the Nordic nations.

Meanwhile, what about the ONS’s measures? For adult learners, the ONS presents a number of indicators taken from different sources. The most important is the UK Employer Skills Survey, which is based on a telephone survey, and relies heavily on respondents’ subjective judgements; nevertheless, it is generally agreed to be a robust measure. ONS also draws on the annual NIACE survey to identify levels of participation and future intentions. It also makes use of the Life Opportunities Survey, which provides new evidence on barriers to learning, while the Labour Force Survey gives details of qualifications levels.

This is all important and plausible evidence, but its bearing on wellbeing is of course indirect. To explore the links between wellbeing and education, ONS draws on its own survey of wellbeing, which showed that life satisfaction is higher for those who have higher qualifications, and lower for those with no qualifications. This is a deeply disappointing, limited and frankly predictable finding, and it is desperately frustrating to find that once more, policy makers reduce people’s knowledge and skills – their ‘human capital’ – to a simple head-count of their qualifications.

We are fortunate that there is a growing body of work from academic researchers that shows not only that adult learning and wellbeing are related, but that there appears to be a clear causal connection. I have summarised this work elsewhere, and you can access it through the Academia website. In addition, as the SCUTREA papers showed, there is also an important body of qualitative work that explores the meanings of adult learning in people’s lives, and how they use it in improving their own agency (or ‘self-efficacy’) and that of the communities which they build and to which they belong.


The ONS report is available at:

New Economics Foundation’s work on wellbeing is reported at:

You can access my overview of research on lifelong learning and well-being at:


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