A Smarter Approach to Education Policy Making
edpol.net presents evidence-based insight into education policy making problems and how to improve them
Education policy making is short term
English education operates below its potential, because short-term thinking and rapid policy cycles cause high levels of policy churn. Meanwhile, larger and more complex decisions are deferred. This will continue to be the case, until we find a smarter way to make policy.
Problems and causes of policy churn
Policy churn disrupts, demotivates and creates distrust. It is damaging to school and college productivity, has reduced teacher motivation and retention and has bequeathed an incoherent system. These problems are caused by an over centralised system, fragmented non-governmental institutions and an adversarial environment.
Alternatives and solutions
Research and round-table discussions explore alternatives. Solutions are proposed including: long-term planning; mechanisms to reconcile conflicting views; an agreed process for policy making; a new centre to synthesise and mediate evidence; strengthening of non-governmental institutions; DfE reform and some devolution and delegation of centralised authority.
Presenting the case for education policy stability
This website provides access to much of edpol’s work. Over the next five pages, there are links to around twenty recent reports. There is research, analysis, records of roundtables and contributions from around one hundred thought-leaders in education. International comparisons are built on edpol’s quantitative analysis of PISA data and contemporary commentary, together with qualitative reviews undertaken by EPI. Clicking through the report thumbnails provides a summary and download option. Summaries on each page are cross referenced with the related evidence. This site is still work-in-progress and those on our mailing list are informed of updates.
Who is edpol?
We are a small, independent organisation examining the causes and consequences of rapid change in English education policy (see About us). We believe policy change should be more enduring and less disruptive to schools, colleges, teachers and lecturers. Our intention is to provide evidence-based insight – rather than opinion. edpol supports the FED’s 21/22 programme to introduce long-term planning.
Education policy making - selective insights
- Education acts have run at three to five times other departments
- The swinging pendulum: 2019 political manifestos imply continued change
- Decision making is centralised with high ministerial turnover
- A revolving door at the office of the Secretary of State
- An even wider churn of Education Ministers
- 104 Junior Ministers in 40 years
- OFSTED key judgements: 10 years of change in priorities and requirements
- DfE 2017 retention survey highlights huge dissatisfaction with policy changes
- Over 300 organisations wish to influence government education policy
- Summary of issues in England: an unstable policy framework
- International experience indicates there is no “left” or “right” policy answer
- Available data indicates “government effectiveness” is critical
- UK needs to move from short-term cycle to a long-term, virtuous cycle
- Recommendations: An improved education policy process and the importance of a long-term plan
Education acts have run at three to five times other departments
There have been three times more primary legislation focused on Education as have focused on Health, and five times more than matters of Defence.
Any practitioner wishing to arrive at an understanding of all the extant primary statute law passed since 1979 would have nearly 1.8 million words to read (the equivalent of ten full readings of Great Expectations).
A very large amount of this primary legislation has been ’empowering’. That is, it has been authorised the making of further and even more detailed law by regulation and order.
Therefore, a vast quantity of new education law has been made with very little scrutiny at all by those who might have doubts about its wisdom and good sense.
The swinging pendulum: 2019 political manifestos imply continued change
The 2019 political manifestos continue to reflect major differences of opinion amongst major parties.
There is an emphasis on declarative positions, new policy and change.
Many policies simply recycle prior legislation/policy.
The impact in schools will be further periods of change, instability, stress and teacher dissatisfaction.
Decision making is centralised with high ministerial turnover
- 24 Secretary of States for Education
- More than 100 Education Ministers
A revolving door at the office of the Secretary of State (24 in 40 years)
- There have been 37 Secretaries of State since 1941 and 24 since 1979, representing one every two years.
- Most commonly a Secretary of State is only in office for 18 months.
- There were seven Education Ministers in the Thatcher/Major period, one every 2.5 years; seven with Blair and Brown, one with the coalition and nine to date with the Conservatives, that is, one every 12 months.
This churn reflects a fast-revolving door resulting in insufficient time to develop and establish educational policy that is likely to stand the test of time. Particularly as significant educational change takes three to five years to bed in.
Concentration of authority into the hands of the Secretary of State immediately opens up questions of checks and balances, the process of policy development and the consistency of policy over successive administrations. The situation is made incomprehensibly worse by the frequent turnover of incumbents.
An even wider churn of Education Ministers (Ministers of State)
With each new Secretary of State there are frequently changes of Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under Secretaries (collectively Junior Ministers).
As an example, there are currently Ministers for Schools, for Universities and Services and for Apprenticeships and Skills, plus a PUS for School Systems.
Since 1979 there have been 112 Junior Ministers engaged in Education.
- In the Thatcher/Major period the Junior Ministers’ turnover was around 1.5 a year.
- Since then, the figure for most governments has been about three new Junior Ministers a year.
For the last 20 years the average tenure for Ministers of State was less than two years.
Concentration of control in Secretary of State
High turnover of Secretaries of State
Even higher turnover of Junior Ministers and Permanent Under Secretaries
Lack of parliamentary scrutiny
High Education Policy Churn
In all 112 Junior Ministers since 1979 (inc. Parliamentary Under Secretaries)
The Institute for Government’s research suggests an even more unstable picture for FE’s, with 48 Secretatries with relevant responsibility between 1980 and 2017, i.e. an average tenure of 10 mnonths.
“There were 28 major pieces of legislation, 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities, and no organisation had survived longer than a decade.” (Norris and Adam, 3)
The depth of the visual shows the number of positions operating simultaneously, most contributing to the amount of legislative policy.
In Labour’s 13 years of Government, there were 47 different Junior Ministers involved in Education policy, along with six Secretaries of State, four re-namings of the Department, and 17 major Acts.
Between 2014 and 2019 there were 14 new Junior Ministers, four Secretaries of State and three major Acts.
In 2022 alone there have been five different Secretaries of State for Educaton.
Each individual will naturally fight for their own initiatives and budgets, wishing to ‘make their name’ and/or ‘have an impact’
OFSTED key judgements: 10 years of change in priorities and requirements
→ = mapping of judgement
⤑ = partial mapping of judgement
= new as distinct judgement
A. September 2010 (090019)
- pupils’ outcomes (x7) → B1.
- quality of school provision ⤑ B2.
- leadership and management
- capacity to improve
B. September 2012 (120101)
- the achievement of pupils a the school → C3.
- quality of teaching in the school → C2.
- the behaviour and safety of pupils at the school → C1.
- the quality and leadership in, and management of, the school → C4.
C. September 2014 (120101)
- the behaviour and safety of pupils in the school ⤑ D3.
- quality of teaching in the school ⤑ D2.
- the achievement of pupils at the school ⤑ D4.
- the quality and leadership and management ⤑ D1.
D. September 2015 (150066)
- effectiveness of leadership and management → E4.
- quality of teaching learning and assessment ⤑ E1.
- personal development, behaviour and welfare ⤑ E2 & E3.
- outcomes for pupils ⤑ E1.
E. September 2019 (190017)
- the quality of education
- behaviour and attitudes
- personal development
- leadership and management.
NB. Above changes in priority can be driven by more profound change at a lower level e.g. relevance of lesson observations; grading and preferred teaching style; relevance and gathering of data; relevance of self-evaluation; definition and measurement of outcomes; pre-warning and frequency of inspection; quality of inspectorate etc.
School Accountability, published on 7 January 2010, the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee (CSFC)
“It is time for the government to allow schools to refocus their efforts on what matters: children. For too long, schools have struggled to cope with changing priorities, constant waves of new initiatives from central government, and the stresses and distortions caused by performance tables and targets.
“The Government should place more faith in the professionalism of teachers and should support them with a simplified accountability and improvement system.”
DfE 2017 retention survey highlights huge dissatisfaction with policy changes
In the 2017 Department of Education survey of former teachers, they were asked to rank the important of certain factors in their decision to leave the profession. ‘Government initiatives/policy change’ was second only to ‘Workload’ as the factor driving teachers from the profession (DfE 2017a, 38-9)
All seven of the most important reasons teachers gave for leaving are in some sense related to the frequent policy changes identified in this paper’s research.
The role of policy change on practitioner abandonment of the profession is also a worsening problem, as can be seen when the DfE study is compared to earlier findings.
Over 300 organisations wish to influence government education policy
Summary of issues in England: an unstable policy framework
Country experience indicates there is a no "left" or "right" policy answer
Drawing on PISA and OECD studies, plus the work of Lucy Crehan, Amanda, Ripley, Alex Beard (1), the diagram below plots the policy orientation of leading PISA countries in education (Finland, Japan and Singapore) – against the typical “left v right” paradigms. There is no consistent approach and policies are borrowed from both sides of the debate. Indicators of success are Teacher training and prestige and a national curriculum.
Available data indicates "government effectiveness" is critical
The highest correlation was between PISA scores and the Government Effectiveness Index (World Bank 2015).
This has a correlation coefficient of 0.85, i.e. there was an 85% match. Nearly all high performing countries for education are high on “Government effectiveness”.
The GEI ‘captures perceptions of the quality of public services, the quantity of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies.’
The UK scores better in its effectiveness index than its PISA score. All things equal, our PISA score should be better. This points to relatively good government but failings in the area of education policy.
Looking at the data and qualitative reporting for education, it seems that ‘government effectiveness’ cannot be created overnight: it is built on stability and buy-in, long-term planning and is certainly helped by aspects of societal consensus.
The prize is the ability to select and grow teacher talent and ultimately to trust teachers to succeed.
Stability and societal buy-in
Effective government policy
Search and grow teacher talent
Trust teachers to succeed
UK needs to move from short-term cycle to a long-term, virtuous cycle
Government view: “It was wrong before, but it will be right now.”
- Reduced autonomy, lower intrinsic motivation, re-setting practices, no opportunity to “master” subject
Recommendations: An improved education policy process and the importance of a long-term plan
Education in England has been trapped in a vicious circle, where a laudable determination to “drive up standards” has engendered many counter-productive outcomes. There is a need for stability and more gradual change (or reform), built around evidence, expertise, evaluation and a long-term plan. Changes to process and institutions can achieve this.
- The development of education policy in England should be guided by a long-range plan (10 years minimum) – in order to make policy change as effective as possible and to avoid policy churn disruption. These recommendations highlight how different categories of issues can be examined and resolved in different forums, including national versus local and regional.
- While a long-range plan is being formulated, government should provide policy stability to allow time to recover from Covid disruption, to allow recent changes to bed-in (in schools: e.g. the latest OFSTED framework, T Levels, 2015 curriculum, new GCSE grades, RSE etc),
- There should be a new framework for policy formulation and implementation. The following are required:
- Improve process (The policy making legislative, planning and implementation processes)
- Hold policy makers to account (Post-evaluation of effectiveness)
- Synthesise and mediate evidence (Authoritative evidence and expertise that should exist between the DfE, research institutions, sectors and professions)
- Build institutions (Organisations to represent professionals, sectors, “stakeholders”, “customers” and local areas and to focus on longer term issue resolution)
- The planning and implementation process must be gated and professional in all areas and critically, it must take account of schools’ and colleges’ capacity to absorb more change. Ministerial action should be informed by a formal and transparent network of practitioners, professionals and other stakeholders. Institutional memory can then build in all three areas, process, evidence and institutions.
- Government should maintain its right to specify the purpose and outcomes of education, but in certain areas should withdraw from detailed policy prescription, including some local and regional matters. This would mean accepting policy recommendations or otherwise formally justifying the Government’s position.