The policy boys – who is behind the big ideas?

The furore surrounding the departure of Michael Gove adviser Dominic Cummings may have died down. But his parting shot – a 250 page tract on everything from genetics to school effectiveness and teacher quality – raised interesting questions about who makes education policy, and how.

Quizzed on Mr Cummings’ influence recently, the Secretary of State responded robustly, quoting Margaret Thatcher’s: “Advisers advise – ministers decide.” But how true is that? Politicians may sign off on key decisions but in reality much key thinking on education policy is hammered out long before the minister decides.

It takes place outside Westminster in think tanks– technically independent research institutes that in reality lean towards one party or another – and makes its way into the party manifestos through an intricate network of advisers who are also frequently recruited from the think tanks themselves.

According to Sam Freedman, who led the education work at one of the most influential, Policy Exchange, before working for Michael Gove in opposition and government, most of the ideas currently being rolled out in schools started life in a handful of well funded right of centre think tanks before the 2010 election. Freedman, now director of research at Teach First, says their influence will inevitably continue and shouldn’t be underestimated

“The ideas behind structural reform, like free schools, had been around for some time and worked on in Policy Exchange; as were the ideas for reforming teacher training. Reforms to curriculum and assessment were being worked on at Reform and Civitas. The Pupil Premium goes back to the Fabian Society in the 1980s.” he explained. “Policy development is much easier to do in a think tank.  Parliamentarians, and their staff, don’t have much capacity. There is too much day to day nonsense going on.”

Equally influential with the current coalition is the liberal leaning Centreforum, whose advisory body is chaired by schools minister David Laws. For the past year it has been researching changes to secondary school accountability, and lobbied successfully for a progress measure to replace the maths and English GCSE threshold as the key indicator for schools.

Senior researcher Chris Paterson says that personal contacts matter as much as having time to think when it comes to influencing policy.

“Everyone knew there was a problem with the current measures and a need to try and drive the sort of behaviour that we would want from a good school. “he explained. “A lot of ideas had been knocking around at special adviser level and we were keen to encourage a move away from absolute attainment and towards progress “.

“We talked to focus groups, educational organisations, head teachers and did modeling and research into how the progress measures might work in practice, which led to a seminar this summer. Following that we were pushing for the threshold measure to be dropped and a double weighting for English and maths in the final best 8 subjects.

” I do think it may have been different if we hadn’t been pushing on this particular issue. But these decisions are never really down to just one organisation. We are independent but have a good relationship with members of all parties. The role of think tanks is to channel ideas to the people who make or influence policy so personal contacts are important.”

But how easy is it to penetrate the networks and how representative are they of the people who ultimately implement and experience their ideas? All three party Education leads, Michael Gove, David Laws and Tristram Hunt, are white Oxbridge educated men, as are many of the policy advisers.

Notable women on the Tory side before 2010 were Liz Truss, then deputy director at Reform and now a minister, and Rachel Wolf who started the New Schools Network, but now works in the US.  Both were also Oxbridge educated. According to one DFE insider, who asked not to be quoted, the atmosphere in the education policy world today can be a bit “Old Boys Network”

Professor Becky Francis describes her two-year move from Kings College London to be Director of Education at the RSA -where she worked on developing Ofsted policy on satisfactory schools – as an “eye opener”.

“I was automatically part of this world where ideas are exchanged, where there is an emphasis on the pace of new thinking. It is also much more macho than the academic world. I was immediately struck by how much banter there was about sport for example. The pace and self-absorption may mean a lack of reflection about the sector itself.  I also wonder if subconsciously innovation is not attributed to women in the same way that it is to men?”

Two way traffic between the think tanks, government and opposition may be partly to blame suggests Rick Muir, associate director of the left of centre IPPR which is currently working on “middle tier” in education: “The think tanks themselves are very male. We try to recruit from as wide a pool as we can, offer flexible employment to parents, and pay all interns a Living Wage, but we all have to recognise there is a long way to go. We have a responsibility because people from think tanks are often recruited into private offices and provide the SPADS and advisers”


Anastasia De Waal, head of family and education policy at the think tank Civitas, thinks the gender imbalance is simply down to the highly politicised nature of education policy: “There are plenty of women in education, even a female dominance in some areas, so policy-making could mirror the male leadership scenario in schools: where the relatively small proportion of men appear to take up a disproportionate number of headships. But ultimately people making education policy are essentially in politics. The fact that more are male simply reflects the well-documented dearth of women entering politics.”

Which flags up a more troubling issue; the lack of a clear role for education professionals in policy making. The Head Teachers Roundtable came together via Twitter to try and address this and has been developing its own qualification framework while pushing for more decisions to be taken out of the political cycle and given to an independent expert body.

No party will firmly commit to this idea but according to Dale Bassett who moved from Reform to take charge of public policy at the exam board AQA, politicians may be missing a trick. “In some ways the ideas coming from the professionals – like the work of the Head Teachers Roundtable -are the most interesting at the moment.

“But the concept of including anyone who knows what they are talking about is not institutionalised. I see it more clearly from the outside. As a leading exam board we have significant experience and expertise that we can use to inform policy, but that is sometimes quite ad-hoc and late in the process. Ideally we would be brought into politicians’ strategic thinking early on.”

Social media may be starting to break down the barriers suggests Policy Exchange’s current head of education Jonathan Simons “Politicians and advisers are reading blogs, picking up knowledge and in some cases changing their minds on things” he said

But progress is too slow for some. Ros McMullen, principle of the David Young Community Academy in Leeds and a founder member of the Heads Roundtable said: “Too often it seems ministers announce a policy without any clear working through and then adjustment and development comes later after the system has panicked and become destabilised.  This isn’t good.

The think tanks are now gearing up for 2015 and the general view is that there is less funding and radical thinking than before 2010. But dividing lines are emerging with Labour focusing on teacher quality, skills and the middle tier/local authority role and the Tories sticking to choice and diversity arguments, which according to Jonathan Simons are easier to “political nuance” than arguments about curriculum and qualifications.

“ But what I want to see is policy makers coming to those who have expertise and saying “this is the outcome we wish to achieve – how do we do it?” says Ros Mc Mullen. “That would be far more effective and far less divisive than the current process. After all we do all want the very best outcomes that can be delivered for young people.”

This article first appeared in the Guardian here in December 2013

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