Education Policy is not always informed by clear cut evidence and there are other drivers at play, according to a new report


One of the last Governments favourite mantras was ‘evidence based policy’.

Good policy-making, self evidently, needs a sound research base. And the last  Government stepped up its programme of research and evaluation, in line with its  increased investment  in  education , setting up a standards and effectiveness unit under Professor Michael Barber to  generate research and check  evidence of delivery against targets across public services. Indeed Professor Barber was renowned for his power point presentations which included graphs and charts mapping out progress and showing evidence to sometimes sceptical audiences.

Clearly, if policy is not based on evidence, but rather on the whims of politicians and senior officials  there  is little guarantee that it will deliver the intended outcomes and will moreover  waste precious resources that could be better and more productively spent elsewhere.

Certainly most politicians now agree that the high levels of new  investment put into education has had relatively modest returns . One explanation for this could be  that too frequently policies were formulated  either with insufficient initial research, or based   on flawed  or  highly selective research (ie lacking robustness, poor sampling and  suspect methodology etc). So how much policy formulation historically is based on clear cut evidence?

A report published this  Monday How Education Policy is Made and How we Might Make it Better, sponsored by the CfBT Education Trust,  concludes that, since the 1970s, much education policy has been influenced less by the strength of evidence, than by political ideology, prime ministerial likes and dislikes and the views of political advisers.

The report, examines the pressures that have shaped education policy since the late-1970s, after Jim Callaghan’s landmark Ruskin speech, across Conservative and Labour administrations. Using interviews with previous education ministers, academics and education figures, the report highlights how decisions can and frequently are    taken without adequate research-based evidence. The figures contributing to the report included former education secretaries Estelle Morris, David Blunkett and Gillian Shephard, senior civil servant Michael Barber and head teachers’ leader, John Dunford. The report found that the short-term interests of the media had a disproportionate influence, making it difficult for a government to develop effective long-term strategies. Short-lived ministerial careers and Ministerial churn could also add to the difficulties in developing longer-term planning. A sense of “something must be done” could rush governments of all parties into taking measures to appear to be in control, researchers were told. Political pressure could also be a key factor, with political advisers being given greater consideration than education experts.

Researchers identified a trend for prime ministers and their special advisers to be increasingly interventionist, with their views having to be incorporated in policy. And indeed Ministers personal experiences including recent contacts and conversations  could also drive policy.

In contrast, the status of education experts and academic researchers was seen to have lowered in recent years, though some politicians think that much of the research evidence  has little practical application.

The report also suggests a pattern of undue attention being paid to international comparisons, even though the overseas examples might not be relevant or might be culturally specific and there may be a tendency for politicians to cherry pick to fit in with preconceived ideas and approaches.

The researchers’ suggestions for how to remedy this situation include the recommendation that the prime role of Ministers should be to bring their values to inform goals and ambitions rather than tactics and methods where expert analysis should play the larger role.  Also the creation of a body based on healthcare’s Nice (National Institute for Clinical Excellence). This body would commission and help to interpret educational research, feeding non-political findings to ministers and civil servants. They propose the appointment of a chief education officer with a similar role to the chief scientific and the chief medical officers and for them to build strong links with the Select Committee system. .And, in order to generate more useful policy research, they recommend the earmarking of a share of research monies and the establishment of an annual prize for well-evidenced work. Evaluations too should be independently commissioned outside the Department and published. Research and evaluation should be brought together to share a budget.

Professor Peter Mortimore, in the Guardian last week, commenting on the report, wrote  ‘Its analysis of 40 years of governments’ policymaking makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of how research and policy fit together. I hope it will be taken to heart by the new education ministers and their advisers.’ Quite.

Baroness Morris, the former Education Secretary stressed, at the reports launch, how important it is to ensure high quality research informs pedagogy in the classroom. It is what happens in the classroom that really matters and affects outcomes.  She recalled how when she was Education Secretary although she had good relationships with many groups in the education establishment she had none with researchers, and she regretted this. Morris was keen though to stress that politics wasn’t simply about reacting to evidence, it relies too on  instinct and intuition and getting the balance right between these elements. And she  posed the question is teaching a science or art?- concluding in her own mind that it is bit of both.

Another speaker at the launch reminded the audience that while high quality research is important for policymaking it doesn’t necessarily deliver greater certainty or make it much easier for politicians to make decisions .It is rare that research is uncontested and there will always be different viewpoints apparently backed by independent research. (one just has to think about the arguments over the efficacy of  Charter schools, Swedish  free schools, Academies , contextual value added, early years curriculum  etc to understand this point)

It might also help if researchers listened more  to what  type of  research classroom teachers want and  can use to directly benefit learners, and  of course for it to be written in accessible prose . Not too much to ask surely?

With a new Coalition Government in place- and at least two Education Bills in the pipeline, this is a timely report.

Instinct or Reason: How Education Policy is made and how we might make it better’ 2010  CfBT Education Trust; authored by LSN –Adrian Perry. Christian Amadeo, Mick Fletcher, Elizabeth Walker