Causes

Policy problems are caused by an unstable centre, weak institutions, lack of process and distrust

Ministers are caught in short-term cycles of rapid policy making. The best intentions have been negated by a revolving door of secretaries of state (20 in 40 years) and many more ministers (some 104 in 40 years), who have overlooked what has gone before and disregarded the capacity of schools and colleges to absorb more change. High stakes OFSTED inspections and frequent changes to key judgements amplify the impact of central control and uncertainty.

The DfE is trapped in the same rapid, unworkable policy making cycle. The turnaround time for policy advice is too short, meaningful consultation is unrealistic and often made within an “echo chamber” and the DfE is beset by systemic issues that face the civil service. Non-governmental institutions could provide a counter-balancing force, however, these institutions are highly fragmented and must survive in a competitive market. While the Education Select Committee is effective, arms-length bodies and advisory organisations in education have been considerably reduced in the last ten years. When compared to other government departments, they are few in number and narrow in representation.

Many important macro-policy discussions are opinion-led. This is facilitated by the absence of a repeatable policy making process, let alone one that demands rigorous evaluation of options. There is a distinct lack of forums or institutions to explore and reconcile highly contested areas. There is suspicion of partisan motive and distrust of supplier capture. Evidence could strengthen the policy-making debate – but it is either not available at all or not available in a timely manner. This ad-hoc approach to policy making is doubly worse because there in no narrative arc to maintain consistent threads of thinking and institutional memory is poor.

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