We know that savings have to be made and costs cut in public services, that we have to get more from less,  and productivity has to improve,  because that’s what we are told by Ministers. Strange then that at the Energy Department, as policy  lurches  from one crisis to the next, and experts predict a mismatch between supply and demand, with an acknowledged  shortage of generating capacity and a creaking national grid,  and an  expensive nuclear deal in prospect  that may or may not work,(probably the latter), one has grounds for wondering why so many civil servants who deal with Energy policy  are due bonuses.

The Public Sector is heavily into bonuses but has yet to produce any evidence that they work (ie for example- they incentivise employees to increase productivity). Because-well – there isn’t and they don’t. Bonuses might work on a production line, making widgets, but for more complex team oriented tasks and  services,  there is  scant evidence that they  do,  or at least  they   only work in certain very specific and limited  contexts.  Apart from anything else its extremely difficult to disaggregate an individual’s singular efforts and added value from that of other team players. Or, establish clear cause and effect rather than simply identifying correlations.  The empirical evidence just isn’t there. If evidence tells us anything it is that  non-monetary incentives (e.g., recognition, respect, autonomy, etc.) can be  much more powerful motivators of behaviours in the workplace. I can guarantee, by the way, that the departments ‘productivity’ will not have increased over the last year, and as Professor Michael Barber has reminded us in the past, improving  productivity is a  key task and benchmark  of any and every  government department.

New figures show that Energy secretary Amber Rudd’s department blew a total of £1,299,729 on whats called “Non-consolidated performance related payments”, aka bonuses, in 2014-15. A whopping £284,586 was earmarked for just 108 “Senior Civil Servants”, meaning these departmental mandarins hooked themselves a median average of £9,800, with some payouts going as high as an austerity-busting £14,700. This is despite an average annual salary of £109,490 . The average private sector bonus for UK workers last year was just £1,500…

Are other civil servants in other departments across government getting bonuses?  I think  we know the answer to that one.

Schools Week tells us that The Department for Education (DfE) paid out £1.7 million in bonuses last year – with top civil servants pocketing up to £17,500 for good performance. In total, 25.7 per cent of DfE senior civil servants got a bonus, with a median of £11,000. That compared with 23.4 per cent of non-senior civil servants with a median bonus of £1,900. And at Ofsted a quarter of the watchdog’s senior civil servants received bonuses: the largest was £16,500 and the median was £13,500.Question- did productivity in the DFE and Ofsted go up last year? I think we probably know the answer to that one too

Austere times, indeed, in the public sector.




Moves to harness insights on behaviour to shape policy and its delivery

Persuading Ministers, and indeed departments, to change policy and do something differently is always a challenge.  But behavioural scientists are beginning to understand what levers they need to  pull to sell new ideas and insights that might  lead to substantial changes in ministers and departmental thinking and ways of doing things, while making savings.

The Behavioural Insights Team or ‘Nudge Unit’ was set up by the Coalition government in 2010 backed  by David Cameron and Nick Clegg .Its mission was , informed by the latest science on behaviour ,  to design policy and delivery mechanisms . Many of the assumptions made by government around how and why people make decisions are simply wrong. The Nudge Unit set out   to transform the approach of at least two major government departments, to inject a new understanding  of human behaviour across government, and to deliver a ten -fold return on its cost, all within two years.  If it failed in these, then it would be wound up. In fact, It succeeded .The Insights Team not only flourishes (within the Cabinet Office) but is even advising foreign governments now on how to implement behaviourally informed policies.

Its main objectives now are;

making public services more cost-effective and easier for citizens to use;

improving outcomes by introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to policy; and wherever possible, enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’

Richard Thaler and  Cass Sunsteins  2007 book’ Nudge’ , originally called  ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ ,a clunkier and altogether  less attractive title, was such a success because it made the world of behavioural science, which had crossed over into economic thinking as well,  more accessible and of  practical  worth to policy makers.

Through small, incremental adjustments in the nuts and  bolts of government informed by  insights into human behaviour, you  can get people to respond more readily,  and to ‘nudge’ them  to make choices that  protect their interests  but also improve the returns for the government and its agents saving time money and adding value.

Whether its encouraging people to pay tax owed, or parking fines, or to insulate their houses, to save energy, to start contributing to personal pension schemes that will benefit them, to filling in applications to college, to re-entering the labour market , to seeking  childcare support –  there are a myriad ways in which simple and nuanced  adjustments can make a huge difference to take up. Even if you only increase take up by, say, 5%, for example, the financial savings can be huge.

Both political and economic theory posits that individuals make rational choices that benefit them. But the reality is that frequently people don’t  make sensible choices, and  for a number of reasons. They don’t have enough time, they have too many choices,   there is too much hassle, or friction involved , the form they have to fill in is confusing etc.  Science has found that If you make it easy  and attractive  for people and show  that others are doing it too, then you stand a greater chance of success  . Computer generated letters that are de-personalised really don’t  often work,  yet they are churned out by government and business, regardless.  Sanctions and threats often don’t work either, in the way you want them to work,  and the same goes  for  financial incentives.  Social pressure, because we are ‘social ‘animals, after all, is often  much more effective. Personalising messages and telling people what others are doing is more likely to work.

Behavioural scientists help  us to understand this esoteric area.

At the most basic level   if you personalise a letter  and make it easy to understand and  adopt the  same approach to  the  forms you send out,  removing the hassle that goes with so many,  you will almost certainly  secure  better returns. Better and more effective communications is  part of the equation of course.  But there is much  more to it than that.

The BIT is into piloting small projects, across government and using randomised control trials to test the outcomes. Simple ideas. like opting everyone in for pension schemes (ie the default position) but also  giving them the choice of opting out, means that a vast majority will not opt out, because there is  the hassle factor and friction involved. Ie you have to positively make a decision to opt out.   These initiatives not only pay for themselves but generate significant returns on top of it..

The BIT unit have produced a pneumonic checklist to help policy makers   to influence behaviour-EAST. Make it Easy. Attractive. Harness Social Influence. And make it Timely, choosing a time when  people are most likely to be  receptive.

Helping people to make the right decisions through re-framing policies and processes to take into account how they actually behave and make decisions is eminently sensible. David Halpern, who has done so much to persuade Ministers to invest in the idea that behavioural insights really can deliver more efficiencies and savings  puts it thus:

‘We seek to introduce a more realistic, empirically grounded model of what influences human behaviour and decision making’.  Halpern sees behavioural insight approaches as ‘ a tool or lens through which to view all policy interventions  and can be used to subtly refashion conventional policy tools.’

But how might this approach be used in education?

We know that many early childhood interventions can be effective and improve young children’s life opportunities- what about nudges to ensure parents are  more actively engaged in these,  and earlier. How about a nudge to encourage those   with mental health issues, to seek support,   or a nudge to encourage the most disadvantaged students and their parents   to apply to  universities or high quality apprenticeships . Indeed,   there is also surely scope  for  nudging young pupils to make appropriate choices of routes into FE ,HE, training and employment(some useful work has already been done at Jobcentres by BIT)   and  in studying  appropriate qualifications to improve their life opportunities .Or, perhaps,  targeting those in the NEET category to secure engagement in education training or a job. These and other areas surely could be susceptible to nudges that will benefit the individuals concerned, save costs, reduce waste and benefit the economy. What’s not to like?


Well, there are some worries that the government will nudge citizens to do things that are not necessarily in their interests, but safeguards are possible here and indeed  so far   appear  to be operating reasonably effectively.

At present most of the insights have produced incremental changes but it is probably only a matter of time before an insight delivers revolutionary change in the policy arena. Arguably recent pension reforms are revolutionary.

BIT has harnessed evidence and delivered results that have cost little to implement and delivered substantial measurable returns. They have also shown a welcome willingness to evaluate what they do, rigorously and ethically,(RCTs) using outside auditing and are prepared to admit mistakes with equanimity, to adapt and to learn.  Above all  they have managed to shift an initially sceptical establishment to a position  where ministers and civil servants are now prepared to engage with the BIT in the early design of policy initiatives.

Watch this space

See Inside the Nudge Unit-How Small Changes can make big differences-David Halpern –WH Allen 2015


What is expected of the new Education Secretary.? The short answer is that she will be expected to ensure that the performance of our system, and  the schools and students  within our system, improves against established , measurable outcomes  . The drive will be, as ever ,to improve the performance of all our students, but, particularly,  the most disadvantaged and to ensure that the gap between them and their peers narrows significantly.  We have the outcome measures and  measurable deliverables in place.

But, as  Sian Townson,  a writer, scientist and academic, at the University of Edinburgh reminds us (in the Daily  Telegraph 19 May )  ‘science tells us that when you focus on the outcome measures, the process is affected: people start to train for the measures directly, rather than the measures being indicative of correct training. These measures are not conducive to education.’ (see notes below)

When she  is talking about education, she means a rounded education, one that nurtures ‘creative ‘ and ‘ imaginative thinking’. Children are drilled in stuff that can easily be assessed but ‘that is not how you inspire or educate’ young people . This criticism is hardly new. Many commentators have suggested that we force our teachers to teach for the test,  that there is not enough time set aside  for truly educating the child , too much time is spent  on assessed academic subjects,   so schools are little more than  exam factories ;  and we only value what we can easily measure,   and so on.

There is a problem, Townson says, because of the ‘prevailing motivational climate’. The argument is that with all these measurable outcomes, ranking and league tables there really isn’t enough autonomy (we have controlled autonomy) to allow schools to really  educate, in the true sense of the word ,our children.   In short, schools really aren’t that autonomous. (True)

Here is how Townson expresses the kernel of the problem -which is essentially, to her, about the wrong controlling environment:

‘Within developmental and education research there is a pillar called self- determination theory. It states that in order to fulfil our basic needs we need to create the right sort of environment. The desirable environment is autonomy-supportive (non-controlling), defined by having provision of choice, rationales for imposed structures, recognition of participant’s feelings and perspectives, frequent opportunities to display initiative, useful feedback, no overt control and criticism, an appropriate reward system and the avoidance of ego-involvement such as rankings.

When supervised externally, and hence assessed and ranked by outcome measures, our schools meet the opposite criteria – that of a controlling environment for both the teachers and the pupils.

This is the environment that studies have shown to cause stress, poor performance and burnout, again not just for the teachers but for the very pupils that we’re meant to improve.

Increased autonomy has been attempted with private schools, faith schools and academies, but they haven’t escaped the league-table battles and so haven’t avoided the controlling motivational climate. A central education policy is needed, one that has the courage to sidestep the rankings. Here in the UK we have world-class potential not just in education but in educational research and theory. It’s time to practise what we preach.’

So, what are the chances of the accountability framework or ‘controlling motivational environment’ changing any time soon?  Not great. Maybe a bit on the margins, at a push. But if  we are serious about improving the education offer, of helping to develop character and  support the development of non-cognitive skills in our children (for which there is a clear demand  both at universities and in the work place), we really have to think a little  harder about how we  build the right enabling environment, and  ensure that there are   incentives in the system ,to deliver the outcomes we want. .


Note- Campbells and Goodharts Laws

Campbell’s law is an adage developed by Donald T. Campbell(1976)

“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Goodhart’s law is named after the banker who originated it, Charles Goodhart. Its most popular formulation is: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”  Or ‘Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.’

(Goodhart’s original 1975 formulation)



Growth of output per head determines living standards and  innovation determines the growth of output per head. So, what determines innovation?

Innovation depends on creativity,  new insights and  entrepreneurship. It’s the entrepreneurs who are central to creating  jobs. But how do  we help create more entrepreneurs? Part of the answer must lie in the education system. And ,interestingly, part of the answer may lie  too with a broader role for government .

The current education model does little, if anything, to encourage creativity, innovation, new insights or entrepreneurship. With respect to students  such are the requirements and demands of the accountability and assessment frameworks, that the system incentivises conformity and teaching to the test. It doesn’t reward creativity and innovation. Politicians will tell you that here, in England  our autonomous schools system encourages schools to innovate to improve outcomes  and gives them the freedom to   dream up new approaches to personalizing education. But  there is slender  evidence that this is the case, across the system. Nor has there been  real efforts to  design reliable  metrics to examine the relationship between educational innovation and changes in educational outcomes.   And it fails to take into account two basic factors. Firstly, schools are not nearly as autonomous as politicians would like us to believe. They have to operate within a tight regulatory framework,; they often cant invest  resources in the way they would like, and  professionals operating within the system feel dis- empowered . Secondly, the accountability and assessment regimes and the inconsistencies and lack of predictability inherent in  these systems, can act as a straitjacket when it comes to enabling  creativity, innovation, new insights as well as in  the development of the  kind of non-cognitive skills that are valued by  society and employers.

Yong Zhao, a US academic at Oregon University , is among those who argue that globally (ie its not just our problem) creativity, entrepreneurship, and global competence are the new basic skills that will bring the “coming prosperity” to the world.  But that the educational paradigm has little or no  chance of preparing the talents and citizens we need in the 21st globalized century, We are neither generating  the  necessary jobs particularly for young people   nor filling the skills gaps  that are essential for sustained  economic growth and prosperity into the future.  So, we have to change the education model .

But, what about other policies outside education? .

Mariana Mazzucato, a Sussex university professor, says in her new book – Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myth- that the state has an important role here. This is counter-intuitive. It’s the private sector that’s creative, risk taking and entrepreneurial, isn’t it?  However ,  Mazzucato  claims that the   entity that takes the boldest risks and achieves the biggest breakthroughs is not ,in fact,  the private sector, but  it is the State.

But how come the  bureaucratic  state has a role in fostering entrepreneurship?  One has to look at the nature of unpredictability, risks and rewards. The huge uncertainties,  long time scales  and costs associated with fundamental, science-based innovation are hugely significant . Private  sector companies, unless they are huge , (and its small and medium sized companies that dominate economies and provide the most employment),   cannot and will not bear these costs, partly because they cannot be sure to reap the returns,  and partly because the returns  may be very long term. Investors tend to seek shorter term returns and short-termism is endemic.

Mazzucato argues that the state  in fact has an  indispensable  role in  support of  both research and development but  also as  an active entrepreneur, taking risks and accepting some of the failures that inevitably follow.

What seems clear is that our education systems are far from efficient and are not doing enough to  help develop the range of skills in young people  needed in society and the job market. It is also the case that collaboration between the private and state sectors to get the best out of both is important but underdeveloped. I would also suggest that the public sector needs, if it has such an important enabling role in research and development and as an active entrepreneur, to focus more on the skills sets and competencies of its civil servants, not least in  better understanding project management,   understanding research and data  and in the workings  of the market. And there needs to be more attachments and engagement, both ways, between the sectors.



More than 50 UK university leaders  are currently   lobbying  European policymakers against possible cuts to research funding.The EU is considering plans to divert some research money to a more broadly based strategic investment fund. Universities across Europe say this would harm research and innovation.



Steve Munby, the Chief Executive of CFBT Education Trust, writing in the Daily Telegraph on 10 February, said that it is  increasingly clear that Ofsted has become too open to political interference and that the judgements Ofsted makes are  ‘contestable’. He pointed out that  both the Labour government and the coalition Government have changed the Ofsted framework regularly (it has changed every year for the past three years), with the consequence that time and money has to be spent on inspectors and schools being trained and retrained accordingly.

Steve is surely correct in his view that Ofsted, which has played a vital role in holding schools to account, has now become too politicised

The autonomous ‘self-improving’ schools system allows politicians, by definition,  less scope to influence what happens in schools, so inevitably they use Ofsted as a lever to exert what influence they can . The latest drive to ensure that schools promote British values is just the latest Whitehall driven initiative that has left school leaders bemused and fearful as they have no clear idea of what is expected of them

Crucially the inspection system must be seen to be fair, transparent and consistent by stakeholders’ .Arguably it is none of these.

There is more than anecdotal evidence that points to inspection teams being less objective than they should be. There  are  now grave doubts that snap inspections can fairly grade either the quality of teaching, or whether or not students are learning.   There are long running concerns over the quality and accuracy of  lesson observations , which can be unreliable and prone to the ‘cognitive biases’ of individual inspectors . David Didau’s argument that stand alone lessons don’t provide evidence of much except the performance of the teacher and the students at that particular moment ,  resonates across the profession.

Having   first denied that its inspectors favoured a particular teaching style  (ie progressive/Traditional) Ofsted then quickly issued additional guidance to inspectors, on this issue,  which rather gave the game away. Ofsted’s  latest cunning plan ,is to have two separate  inspection teams going  in quick succession to schools , with the  second team double checking the first teams findings

There couldn’t be a clearer example of an organisation that has lost confidence in itself   and its own judgements.

Ofsted will almost certainly face reform after the next election, whoever is in government.  It is not about to disappear, nor should it, because   school  inspections  are  vital for any credible accountability framework.

Apart from moves to reform Ofsted it is likely that  Sir Michael Wilshaw, an outstanding former Headteacher, but perhaps less  sure footed  at handling what has become a highly political job  as Regulator , will  almost certainly , and doubtless  with some relief, move on to pastures new after the election.



Where do we stand?


Education debates in this country are often lively and mostly polarised. The media thrives on, and to a great extent needs, robust argument and adversarial comment but has less space for identifying where there is agreement and consensus.  However, there are many issues in education where there is substantive agreement between the political parties, where consensus has developed and been sustained over time. One such area is in the shared  understanding that good heads, teachers and schools can help others to raise standards and improve outcomes and that the skills to improve the system lie within the system itself. Politicians, across the board, want schools to take more responsibility for themselves and each other in delivering a true self-improving school system. The All party Education Select Committee, in its recent report on school partnerships and co-operation, reflected the established consensus that high quality collaboration through partnerships delivers improved outcomes.  The Committee said: “School partnerships and cooperation have become an increasingly important part of a self-improving or school-led system. We believe that such collaboration has great potential to continue driving improvement to the English education system.” Meanwhile Ofsted, back in 2010, said that whole system improvement is the holy grail of education reform.

There are a number of ways, according to Professor Toby Greany  of the Institute of Education  ‘  in which school-to-school support and system leadership can be brokered and structured, none of which are mutually exclusive. The key models in place include structural governance models (such as multi-academy trusts and federations), designations based on formal criteria (such as National Leaders of Education and Teaching Schools) and role related partnerships (such as where an executive head oversees two or more schools).’

These partnerships ,he says,  are being seen as the answer both at the “failing” end of the spectrum (where academy chains, ideally led by outstanding schools, are brokered to take control), as well as the “upstream” improvement of existing teachers.

The London Challenge and to a slightly lesser extent the Manchester Challenge, have been used as examples of how good partnership working and collaboration can work across a system of schools. Of course, with London’s success, as some have suggested, there were a number of key factors at work which are difficult to disaggregate and isolate as to their direct effect on outcomes. There was an  overarching commissioner, Tim Brighouse ,who helped provide moral leadership and drive, there was  extra funding made available  (and the disadvantaged areas targeted were becoming wealthier over the period of the Challenge) education experts known as Challenge Advisors played a significant role  and good use of  data packs allowed schools to compare their performance with other schools with very  similar characteristics (ie comparing like with like-so there was no place to hide). There was also a plentiful  supply of outstanding Heads and teachers in London from which to draw (in a sense London is exceptional in this respect)

The overarching challenge is to try and ensure   now that effective collaboration and partnerships work across the system, to deliver systemic improvement from the bottom up rather than top down. Currently collaboration is very good in some areas but signally lacking in others.  The system is fragmented. In some of the most disadvantaged areas there is the least evidence of partnership working. In other words it would be wrong to assume that collaboration is the default position.  And if you are relying on collaboration to deliver improved outcomes, then surely this is a prerequisite.

When the Challenge ended the concept of Teaching Schools, which had been pioneered as part of the London Challenge, was continued, while the number of National Leaders of Education was more than doubled. Teaching schools appear to be a success but their effects are patchy. The big challenge for politicians now is to ensure that the system has incentives (carrots and sticks) to deliver more collaboration, across the system, drawing inspiration from good collaboration projects  including, of course, the  London Challenge, while accepting that some elements that made the London Challenge successful are difficult or impossible to replicate and up-scale in other areas, for example  in rural areas  and coastal  towns .



Research ‘Lessons from London schools’ due out this year  is being carried out by CfBT Education Trust with Centre for London and LKMCo . This might provide some useful evidence and insights to help inform this debate and some   pointers as to the way forward.






What is their impact?

Often insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions

In many developing countries private schools are offering education to some of the poorest children, apparently filling  significant gaps in state provision.

A  DFID paper, published this month, presents a rigorous review of evidence on the role and impact of private schools on education for school-aged children in developing countries. It was produced by a multi-disciplinary team of researchers and advisers with expertise in education, economics, international development and political economy from the University of Birmingham, Institute of Education, Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the EFA Global Monitoring Report.

The focus of the review is on private school delivery of education to poorer sections of societies, including those private schools that are identified as low-fee private  schools (LFPs)

Findings related to’ improved learning outcomes are supported by moderate strength  evidence indicating a positive contribution of private schools to better learning outcomes  and strong evidence that better teaching practices are more likely to lead to improved  learning outcomes.’

With regard to’ improved quality, although a strong body of evidence was found to support  the assumption that private schools have better teaching, other assumptions relating to  quality had less conclusive findings.

There is moderate evidence that ‘Private school pupils achieve better learning outcomes when compared with state schools. However, there is ambiguity about the size of the  true private school effect. In addition many children may not be achieving basic competencies even in private schools.’

Underpinning the idea that private schools drive up quality are the concepts of market competition, choice and accountability. Moderate strength evidence was found to support the notion that perceived quality of education is a key factor for parents when choosing private schools and that this choice is informed,  albeit through informal social networks and general perceptions of private schools rather  than more systematic information or direct observation of schools. However, when it comes to investigating how parents exercise this choice, the evidence is scarce. The little evidence there is indicates that users participate in and influence decision making but  there was no evidence that parents actually exit private schools due to quality concerns’. Similarly there was a very small body of literature relating to market competition and this evidence was particularly inconsistent with concerns being raised that competition can deplete state school quality with better-off pupils exiting state schools. This insufficient evidence poses a challenge to the often claimed assertions that higher accountability in private schools and market competition drives up quality across the education system.’ There was moderate strength evidence showing that governments were often found to have a lack of knowledge, capacity and legitimacy to implement effective policies for collaboration and regulation of the private schools sector.

Findings relating to whether private schools lead to improved efficiency were also  inconclusive. There was insufficient (although mainly negative) evidence on whether   private schools are financially sustainable. However, there was moderate strength evidence that the cost of education delivery was lower in private schools than in state  schools. These lower costs were often clearly related to lower teacher salaries which  raises some questions and concerns about the working conditions of private school teachers which needs investigating further.’

Finally, findings relating to improved equity and access were overwhelmingly negative  and neutral, but mainly weak. There were moderate strength findings that girls are usually  less likely to attend private schools, although this finding was context specific. There is a  small body of evidence consistently showing that attending private school is more  expensive for users than attending state school in terms of school fees and meeting the  more hidden costs of uniforms and books, etc

‘The evidence on whether private schools complement state provision was very thin. Examples were found of both private schools filling gaps where there are fewer government schools, and private schools operating where there is an adequate supply of government schools but where they are performing poorly. This indicates a potential blurred boundary around whether private schools complement or compete with state provision.’

Some overarching critical gaps in the evidence base were identified. These were:

There is a lack of data on the true extent and diverse nature of private schools.

The existing evidence is geographically heavily weighted to South Asia with a much more limited African focus. No material was found on conflict-affected or fragile states.

Few studies focus exclusively on middle and secondary schools or on peri -urban Areas.

No research was found on the effect of international companies or chains of private

Types of research designs are limited with a paucity of longitudinal research, in depth ethnographic research, and comparative work

Few studies offer a political economy analysis of private schooling.


The role and impact of private schools in developing countries: a rigorous review of the evidence – Laura Day Ashley ,Claire Mcloughlin, Monazza Aslam, Jakob Engel ,Joseph Wales, Shenila Rawal -April 2014