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Instinct or reason
How education policy is made and how we might make it better
by Adrian Perry

In June, two leading educational organisations – the Learning and Skills Network (LSN) and CfBT Educational Trust – launched a report investigating the factors that lie behind the formation of educational policy. The research team was made up of Adrian Perry and Mick Fletcher, both experienced consultants with Further Education backgrounds, supported by Christian Amado and Liz Walker from LSN. The report used discussions with an expert group, desk based literature review (including academic research and politicians’ memoirs), interviews with stakeholders and an extended process of draft revision. The study looked at policy changes across a range of policy areas – from early years to higher education, and including topics like institutional autonomy and wider participation that run across educational sectors – to help give a representative view. The authors found that widely shared perceptions of a disconnection between evidence and policy were confirmed by interviews and reading, despite the work of respected institutions aiming to bring research and practice closer together. 

The report looks at and evaluates a number of possible drivers for policy. These include

  • Urgency – a sense that 'something must be done'
  • Ideology – the values and beliefs of policy makers
  • International exemplars
  • Cost
  • Electoral popularity
  • Pressure groups and influence
  • Personal experience of policy makers
  • Research evidence

Education policy formation shared many concerns with other areas of government, such as: an increase in the pace of policy change (perhaps associated with more rapid changes in political appointments); the growth of intermediary bodies; and an enthusiasm for market based solutions. Interviewees (including two former Secretaries of State) spoke of: the power of ideology; the increased influence of the Prime Minister; the changing face of advice and dissent within the Civil Service and beyond, and the need to work with the grain of government to retain influence; a possible increase in the politicisation of decisions; the replacement of pilots that aim to test policy with pathfinders whose goal is effective implementation; the effects of increased information; and the changing role of the Civil Service and the decline of major commissions as a source of policy advice. 

The report discusses why evidence seems to be underused in policy formation. It takes a particular look at the perception – by politicians, institutional leaders and senior civil servants – that the research community is not providing the information they need to support policy change and system management.

The influence of the media was seen to have increased strikingly, demanding in turn a more active handling of policy presentation from government. Media attention is felt to have influenced the development of some policy adversely. The important influence of ministerial career-paths, which was mentioned in the literature, was also a recurrent theme from our interviewees. Despite a critical tone, the interviewees welcomed many of the improvements they felt had been delivered by the new public management.

The section that looks at what we can learn about educational policy from the memoirs of politicians covered Prime Ministers (James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major) and Secretaries of State (Gillian Shephard, Kenneth Baker, David Young and David Blunkett). These confirmed that the Ruskin speech of 1976 was a watershed in policy discourse, opening educational debate to non-specialists concerned with issues of quality and relevance. The assertion that in the past education policy – especially curriculum issues – was a ‘secret garden’ is true, probably unhelpful, and will not return. Memoirs suggested that politicians took greater account of their instincts than of coherent analysis of evidence, and valued anecdotal evidence from visits or trusted practitioners and the support of think-tanks and political advisers. Politicians representing different parties and generations shared a distrust of some elements of the educational establishment, often with reason.

The report ends with conclusions and recommendations. It confirms a gap between evidence and policy making, which seems to get wider as governments stay in power: attention needs to be given to the decline in the use of expertise and the politicisation of decisions on pedagogy. Administrations enter power with a commitment to ‘what works’ that seems to fade. The swift rejection of critical analyses or reports is a negative aspect of this. Media attention – short term and particular – creates severe difficulties for policy making. Decisions become more political and are taken higher up, which can warp reaction to evidence, and create a presumption against policy adjustment. Even the improved information flows in the education service have a malign side effect: namely to increase snap decisions when something appears to be going awry. Information can tell politicians what is wrong, but is less useful in suggesting remedial action. This may be why policy is changing more rapidly, and our contributors felt, often in a way that ignored the need for change to bed in. 

The report concludes with recommendations which include:

  • A recognition that the key role of ministers is to bring their values to inform goals and ambitions, rather than tactics and methods, where expert analysis should play the larger role.
  • An expert commission, analogous to NICE in health care, be established to create and interpret educational research, evidence and analysis. It should advise institutional leaders as well as politicians and civil servants. Ministers would be encouraged to share their thinking when their analysis differs from the commission.
  • An office of Chief Officer, analogous to the Chief Scientific or Medical Officer, should be established. S/he should build strong links with the Select Committee system.
  • Evaluations should be independent, commissioned outside the Department and published. Research and evaluation should be brought together to share a budget.
  • Given the short career life of ministers and the limited life of governments on one hand, and the need for long term implementation of educational reform on the other, there should be a search for consensus between political parties on non-controversial ground.
  • Attention should be given to the perception that little useful research is being generated for education policy makers. We recommend that a portion of the budget for educational research should be directed to topics which can be seen to relate closely to identified needs of the system.
  • Researchers should remain independent, but be given help to present their conclusions in a way that will give the best chance of calm consideration rather than rejection.
  • A prize should be established for well evidenced policy.
  • Better links should be built between practitioners, researchers, civil servants, politicians and quangos – represented in shared career paths.
  • International comparisons should be encouraged as part of a managed learning system.

The full report can be downloaded from the CfBT website.

Adrian Perry

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