My policy change

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A few years ago, on my old blog, I expressed my views about education policy. Specifically, I was annoyed by politicians constantly meddling with structures when it is the substance of education that is the major issue. I hoped for better education ministers.

Since then, I’ve changed my mind about structures. I still think ministers would do well to focus on substance, but I now see substance as something well defined and specific. To understand what I mean, imagine that the English phonics check had instead involved ministers asking the sector to develop an ‘early literacy assessment’. The latter is the sort of policy we are more used to in education and it can be captured by the ideological priorities of various players. The former is more tightly defined and makes better policy.

So, what about the structures?

Over recent years, education in the UK, US and Australia has undergone an accountability revolution. This has involved state-mandated standardised testing. In the US, there has been an explicit reward-and-punish regime associated with these tests, whereas in the UK and Australia, pressure has been exerted less overtly, but it still weighs heavily on everyone involved. The UK also has an inspection system that seeks to hold schools accountable.

We often find ourselves arguing about the value of this kind of accountability. Some point to high performing education systems and note that they lack the same kinds of regimes, inferring that accountability is the cause of the stagnation we see in international tests taken by students in the UK, US and Australia. I disagree (and my thinking on this has been heavily influenced by Eric Kalenze).

Education was not in a golden age in the US in 2000. If it had been, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) act that initiated the test-reward-and-punish system would not have been passed. We have to realise that when politicians impose accountability regimes on education, they do it as a response to perceived failure. Yes, it is the ideological go-to solution of our times, but they would not have gone to it if they didn’t feel the need. Accountability is not the cause of our problems, it is a response to them; a symptom of them.

It’s not a very effective response, I think we can agree. I wouldn’t abandon all standardised testing because I believe the data is useful: it lets you know where your school sits relative to others; whether you’re disappearing down a rabbit hole. But I don’t think it’s the solution because it’s based on the premise that we, in education, know exactly how to fix things, we just need motivating to do it. The truth is that we don’t know what to do and all that these regimes achieve is a frantic rush to apply more leeches.

This is because education is the domain of bad ideas.

So, what can policy makers do in the UK and Australia (I know the US system less well so I won’t comment)? Politicians are attuned to public opinion and so they are good at identifying when things are going wrong. However, we have to recognise their limitations. Few education ministers are masters of the brief. Even those who possess, or slowly develop, a better understanding, are likely to be moved and replaced at any point by a whimsical prime minister who also knows little about education. In their brief time at the helm, education ministers seek to make an impact.

This last point is important. If you have a homogenous education system that is actually doing quite well, an education minister may fall for the line that students now need to develop critical thinking skills through project-based learning and so on. Without understanding the history and the science, a homogenous system could start to undo the things that made it a success in the first place. After all, the system is unlikely to correctly understand what those things were because, over time, lots of levers have been pulled across the whole system.

So, successful education systems are not necessarily robust education systems. And this is where structures are important.

The challenge for politicians is to try to engineer a structure where difference is maintained. You can’t have a system that, at the flick of a switch in headquarters, can be sent off chasing the latest fad. And the solution is not as simple as outsourcing everything to the private sector because, as the example of free schools in Sweden shows, this can just as easily lead to groupthink. Instead, we need different system components that can survive independently but that are driven by slightly different priorities; parent led providers, the state, non-profit organisations, interest groups such as dyslexia campaigners and so on. Equally, we need different ways of training teachers so that education may benefit from a plurality of outlooks.

I am not claiming that these disruptive alternatives will be better than traditional providers. Many may be worse. And there is still a role for system-wide regulation including policies such as the phonics check. However, by embedding difference, we can identify features that make schools, or other parts of the education system, better. Over time, this will lead to a more effective system overall, and one that is robust.

If education was focused on evidence, then I wouldn’t suggest this. I’m a fan of Britain’s single National Health Service and I am comfortable with the idea of monolithic, publicly owned utilities and public transport systems. But then, nobody is likely to say that, ‘in the future, merely supplying electricity will not be enough’. Education is different. It is contested. I see no alternative but to let the contest play out.

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15 thoughts on “My policy change

  1. The phonics check was introduced in England because no one can become a good reader without the ability to decode print to sound efficiently. For all that educators moan about tests distorting teaching, I don’t think anyone has produced any evidence that the phonics check has resulted in KS1 teachers spending so much time on decoding that they haven’t got enough time for other curricular objectives.

    By the same token, I doubt that the Yr 4 times table check to be introduced in 2019-2020 will distort maths teaching–in fact, there is a very substantial body of research indicating that fluency in basic operations are esential if pupils are to have sufficient working memory to solve more complex problems.

    Likewise, no pupil can become proficient in any academic subject without a thorough foundation of knowledge and understanding. Unlike higher-order skills, these are easily tested, much like phonics skills and mastery of number bonds. In a paper published just under a year ago, we argued that annual knowledge tests would provide sufficient ‘proof of progress’ so as to render Ofsted inspections of teaching and learning redundant. Teachers would have the freedom to teach as they see fit, and with any luck it would end the continuous political meddling and interference which create vast amounts of counterproductive workload. See http://parliamentstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Free-Schools-For-A-Free-Society.pdf

  2. Interesting. So, over the long run, the system WOULD move towards conformity as certain approaches were proven to be effective?

  3. Interesting argument – my concern is that the yardstick by which we measure effectiveness in education is distorted, and different for different groups. So while I agree a free system that maintains difference is best, I don’t think convergence or consensus is even a distant hope. It will take generations.

    Some schools are about exclusivity. Some are about offering students experiences. Others are about life skills. Some are just babysitting. Most of all, the tide of public opinion seems to be more and more that schools are about work readiness.

    Further, for almost a century, schools have been resistant to best evidence. Having been only recently exposed to the science for effective learning, I was shocked it had all been hidden from me for so long. However, I quickly came to understand that most people in education simply don’t respect the scientific method, the power of reason, and the legacy these methods have in exponentially accelerating civilisation (all bombast intended!).

    So, at this point in time, while I support a diversity in the system, I am unmoved by the idea this argument is playing out anywhere but in a tiny, but fortunate, section of the internet for people who still care about truth before anything else.

    1. I think you are right about resistance to evidence and I think this comes from what you said about people thinking of schools for different purposes.
      In education research there seems to long be an approach that if a method doesn’t work in terms of ‘learning’, measure it via another measure (engagement, wellbeing, efficacy etc.) and if you wish link that measure to outcomes somehow. Not long ago it was higher order thinking skills but as they have found that students from a more traditional education are better at these as well it has changed to more fuzzy measures.

  4. I don’t have faith that schools, especially in a competitive environment, will follow evidence that much. There are definitely a lot of principals who will always choose to change the status quo in favour of something that will get them on the news – no matter how bad or wacky it is.

  5. Two popular fallacies when thinking about options for state run education.

    1. Status quo bias. Just ask a 20 year old whether phone services should be run by state owned monopolies. Not long ago it was unthinkable that you might have lots of private completion trying to sell you a phone.

    2. Nirvana fallacies: X is bad compared to my view of Nirvana so X is much worse than everything else.

  6. Excellent piece. However, I would quibble slightly with “But I don’t think it’s the solution because it’s based on the premise that we, in education, know exactly how to fix things, we just need motivating to do it.”

    At least in England, I think it has been based more on a hope that pressure would lead practitioners to rationally INVESTIGATE “how to fix things” by looking at research and, more particularly, at how similar schools manage to do better. And also on an awareness of, for example, the disastrous embedding of bad practice that resulted from the 1998 National Literacy Strategy, the hangover from which is still preventing the push for phonics from achieving everything it could, or from the progressive takeover of Ofsted.

    While this hope seriously overestimates human rationality, it is also to some extent, as you point out above, based on a serious lack of alternative approaches for governments.

  7. I *almost* agree with the conclusion “let the contest play out”. The problem is that it *doesn’t* play out. So often we find ourselves going backwards, or at best, round in circles. The assumption behind the use of the verb “let” is mistaken. Something more proactive is required than getting out of the way, or even attempting to liberalise the market by removing the bureaucracy.

    What also matters are the rules of the game, the language of the conversation, the currency of exchange, the criteria on the basis of which the market operates.

    That is why the best thing that ministers could do is to create the means by which educational objectives can be defined with precision. Not, mark you, to define our educational objectives – that would be a process too vulnerable to ministerial whimsy. But to enable society and the complex market of parents, employers, universities and other stakeholders to contribute to a heterogeneous body of educational objectives (as the 1988 Education Act tried and failed to do). And the means to doing that lies in the realm of data science, which is something that few teachers understand, or indeed feel inclined to feel warmly towards.

    When and only when we have clear objectives can the game of defining good pedagogy (i.e. the means of instruction) begin.

  8. “We have to realise that when politicians impose accountability regimes on education, they do it as a response to perceived failure.”

    They also do it to divert attention away from their own failures and to make excuses for not sending funding where it should go. In the case of NCLB and its shameless favouring of school choice as some kind of “solution”, amongst the considerable damage it created was to shut down many public schools that were turned into charters – and as we know, charter school accountability is greatly diluted, to the benefit of their often wealthy owners. Both major parties in the US are unfortunately devoted to school choice and charters. Read more about it at

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Behind_Act

    and at Diane Ravitch’s website: dianeravitch.net

  9. Interesting – WordPress doesn’t let me write the name of Diane’s site. She has had trouble with WordPress censoring or unusually deleting comments and posts in the past.

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