Improved National Decision Making about Policy and Practice for Schools

In a major initiative on behalf of the New Visions for Education Group, Professor Sir Tim Brighouse puts the case for five critical tests to be satisfied in any proposed education reform.

Summary of the argument

This paper argues that:

It is time to take stock and to adopt changes which would improve the way in which national policies affecting schools are made. The first section, in broad terms, both describes how we have arrived at the present position -over a period spanning seventy years- during which time gradual shifts in education policy making have occurred -and then the paper goes on to elaborate the unhealthy imbalance in the respective influence of those mainly involved in the current policy making decision making process. This imbalance) manifests itself in:

• A failure to make enough progress in addressing issues of underachievement among children from disadvantaged backgrounds
• Too much power at a national level especially in the hands of the Secretary of State.
• An undermining of the teacher’s voice and role in matters which are properly professional rather than political – especially in the curriculum and how to teach.
• Inappropriate influence of market forces in areas of school provision where market forces put at risk the overriding duty of the state to secure equity and equality for its citizens..
• Decisions about policy that owe too much to anecdote and not enough to weighing the evidence

The second section, most importantly, goes on to suggest five ‘test questions’ that should overtly be deployed by governments in making decisions about policies and about regulation in order to mitigate undesirable outcomes. (See: Five ‘Test Questions’ to improve national decision making, page 7).

Clearly there are some policy issues where the application of the proposed ‘test questions’ is more important: we suggest where priorities might lie in this respect in the conclusion. (See: Conclusion and Priorities, page 12).


We accept and welcome the need for change in educational policies in response both to the accelerated pace of that change more widely and also to our increased knowledge of what works. What we are anxious about is the need now to ensure the best possible response to that need for change and to minimise unexpected and undesirable outcomes.

Phase one: 1944-1974

After the Second World War there was cross-party agreement about the making of educational policy in England and Wales. It derived from major educational reports of the 1930s and found expression in the 1944 Education Act. Its architect R.A.Butler was powerfully influenced by William Temple who was variously a headteacher, president of the WEA and archbishop. Temple argued that the purpose of education was to raise people from ‘what they are’ to ‘what they might be’ and in doing so, eliminate ‘mental slavery which is as real as any economic kind (of slavery)’. He asserted that social justice, political freedom and the ability of the ‘individual to be free in his own life’ depended on education doing its full work and argued that because education was an arena where you treat people ‘as they might become’ rather than ‘as they are’ we should be especially cautious about ‘business’ having undue influence on what happens.
Butler was also committed to the notion of partnership among the various key players, namely the churches which had been responsible originally for the creation of most of the schools; the local authorities which had run most of the rest of the schools; the teachers and their leaders without whom nothing would be achieved and the government itself. So Butler founded a coherent and inclusive system with checks and balances among the following disbursements of power:

• The Secretary of State should set policy direction after consultation with the other partners and the 1944 Act charged the Secretary of State, within an overarching responsibility to promote the educational development of the people of England and Wales, to secure an adequate supply of suitably qualified teachers and make sure scarce capital finance for school and college buildings was rationed fairly through approved loan consents and formally to approve or not school openings and closures proposed by the LEAs or the churches.

• The LEAs, in partnership with the churches, were charged with the duty of overseeing the planning of new places and the closure of schools, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. The LEAs were charged with securing attendance, supporting the schools in curriculum development and in the professional development of teachers.

• The teachers in schools, constrained only by the 11plus exam, and for grammar schools the school certificate and then O and A level, determined the curriculum and how it was taught under the leadership of the headteacher with advice available from the LEA. Every school had a governing body though in many urban LEAs that took the form of a subcommittee of its Education Committee.

• Parents, who had a duty to ensure that their children were educated at school or otherwise.

Of course there was much more to an individual LEA’s duties than this. For instance it ran a Youth Service – in partnership with the voluntary sector. It planned and provided further and adult education. It organised admissions to schools, administered grants for university students and, in partnership with other LEAs and central government, financed and planned the expansion of higher education outside the then small university sector. It performed all these tasks through decisions taken by directly elected councillors. This paper does not address these other issues except as they affect school and pre-school provision. Overarching the shared arrangements -established following 1944 -was a Central Advisory Council which comprised experienced and distinguished persons of the day who were charged from time to time with producing major reports (e.g. Crowther, Robbins, Newsom, Plowden) which influenced national educational policy decisions.

This post-war consensus about a satisfactory modus operandi was underpinned by various tacit assumptions; that education was a ‘good thing’ and should be inclusive of all; that intelligence although ‘general and largely inherited’ could be optimised; that schools and particularly teachers in consequence could make some difference to pupils’ outcomes both in attainment and more widely; and, as we have outlined, that the whole system with appropriate checks and balances depended on a shared partnership involving central government, local government , the professional voice of teachers and the parental duty to ensure school education or otherwise for their children).

That world lasted for about 35 years.

Phase two: 1974-2013

Of course, as with al emergent changes it is arguable as to when a replacement of this consensus began to occur. For example the publication of the Black Papers in 1969, (‘Fight for Education’ and ‘Crisis in Education’) first called into question whether we could rely on the teachers to teach effectively. This was followed up by James Callaghan’s Ruskin speech of 1976 which conveyed much the same message but also questioned the role of government in influencing what one of his predecessors had called the ‘secret garden’ of the curriculum. In 1974 local government reorganisation diminished the power of the Education Committees of local authorities and their professional advisers to such an extent that central government civil servants felt they could no longer rely on this – one of its major partners – at least to the extent that it had before. So there were signs that the status quo was being questioned increasingly. In short the carefully constructed coherent system put into place through the 1944 Education Act was no longer widely accepted as a basis for running schools.
The election of Mrs Thatcher’s government resulted in the putting in place of substantial change to the 1944 settlement. There had been no Education Acts until after Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979 and it was her government which began o usher in a new phase and direction in schooling. She had been a successful and admired Secretary of State in the Heath government but, whereas then she had accepted the post-war consensus about the best way of running the school system, later as Prime Minister she broke with the established ways of making policy for schools and passed the first few of the more than 30 Education Acts which have regularly punctuated the 34 years since together with a seemingly endless stream of secondary legislation. In 1982 to the dismay of the teachers and the local education authorities, she abolished the Schools Council which had been seen as the mechanism by which curriculum developments could be promulgated with appropriate involvement of the various interest groups. By then she had already passed two acts of parliament, affecting inter alia special educational needs and parental preference – or parental choice as it is popularly misrepresented. Almost every aspect of the schooling system thereafter has been subjected to constant change, underpinned by legislation, as successive governments have continued to apply a curious mix of the neo liberal economic theory – i.e. the ‘market’ will provide the ideal solution – which guided Mrs Thatcher and alongside this an almost Stalinist central direction of policy in other respects.

In short the old consensus and agreement about fundamentals and balance was cast aside.

There have of course been great advances in both periods. Most would agree that the quality of teachers has improved; the school leaving age increased to 15, then 16 and will shortly extend to education to 18; care and education in the pre-school years have been transformed in the light of research about their impact on pupil prospects; and there has been a gradual adaptation to the huge changes in technology. Unsurprisingly given this, standards of some pupil outcomes, especially in urban areas have risen sharply; and the use of data and research findings has increased in schools. All these changes have been supported by increased resource, often through specific central grants, as politicians have acted on a belief that economically successful nations require higher levels of skill and education among the workforce.

In the first period there may have been consensus but it induced a laissez-faire approach which meant that in some schools there was a mediocrity and lack of urgency which meant that more pupils then than now had largely unfulfilled potential. The standards of pupil outcome in the 1950s and 60s especially in the basics and at age 16, charted through a review of statistics and HMI reports by Adrian Elliott in ‘State Schools since the 1950s:the good news’ (Trentham Books 2007), brook no denial. This was not a golden age despite the progress made.

But there have been some countervailing influences too in the second phase or period. These include:

• A gradual erosion of professional trust which now means teachers are not a strong voice in policy creation and more seriously are subjected to detailed advice not merely on what to teach but how to teach it.
• An overly prescriptive and centralised national curriculum.
• Increased and progressively tougher central accountability of schools and teachers respectively, which some argue might better be exercised locally.
• More high stakes tests exams and school inspections.
• A tendency for Secretaries of State and their department to micro-manage and to do so without the advice of HMI whose main role used to be advising the Ministers on educational issues, rather than ministers deciding and using HMI to report on the implementation of policy.
• Increased powers for the Secretary of State and fewer powers for the local democratic body. (The Secretary of State originally had three powers but now has over 2000)

Underpinning these changes has been a shift from a schooling system united in aiming for a broad education for its citizens and largely unaffected by the operation of market forces, to one preoccupied with narrower outcomes but ones supposed to be beneficial to the individual and to society economically.

Moreover it has become a system implicitly relying heavily on market mechanisms to ‘deliver’ successful outcomes.White papers over the years have used words such as ‘choice’(for parents) ‘diversity’(of provision) and ‘autonomy’(of institution) to promote market competition among schools while simultaneously hoping for a system which promotes ‘equity’ and ‘equality’. The balance has been tipped towards the market by how schools have been held ‘accountable’ – through league tables and publication of school inspections. Together it can be argued that these two ‘drivers’ have progressively focused on a very narrow range of school outcomes.

The balancing act of so regulating the market elements of this overall prescription in the interests of fairness has eluded politicians who have pursued the establishing of a balance with more or less enthusiasm. There is of course a place for the market – after all we live in a society which economically depends on free market mechanisms.

Some would argue however that there are disadvantages, particularly in education, in relying too heavily on markets which inevitably are engines of failures as well as successes.

The changed context in which education operates

Any schooling system does not operate in isolation. Schools – and those who set policy for them –have to respond to the national and international context in which they sit. Expectations of the schools increase as the technology speeds up change and in the wake of international movement of people and ideas. Finally there has been substantial social change in the second half of the period since 1944; a shift in employment opportunity away from manufacture and unskilled and semi-skilled jobs; a loosening of the traditional family; a change in expectations for females; and in many urban areas the establishment of multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multi-lingual communities with a more mobile population. It is within these communities, in the inner city and on the outer ring estates that some of the most pressing issues for schools occur.

Five ‘test questions’ to improve national decision– making

National decision – making could be improved in the future if the following five ‘test questions’ were to be applied and addressed in White Papers and Ministers’ actions taken towards detailed implementation. We think that the first three are of a different order and more important in some ways than the final two, although if left unconsidered the final two can vitiate the intentions of the first three.

‘How is the proposed change intended to improve life’s chances for all children especially those who are gaining least from the schooling system?’

It is generally accepted that there is a ‘tail of underachievement’, particularly among those pupils adversely affected by poverty and especially boys. There are some pupils within each ethnic group who seem to underachieve. This ‘underachievement factor’ has been addressed by attention to schools which underperform and more recently by national attention to pupils themselves. Many policies and practices can affect what is sometimes dubbed the ‘Achievement Gap’. So the Pupil Premium is a positive: so too was the attention given to early-years investment and Excellence in Cities and the London (and other) Challenges. Sometimes however the detail – for example the stipulated rules of distribution under Excellence in Cities – can run counterproductively to the stated intent. In short, actions apparently unconnected with this issue can impact on the likelihood of its successful outcome.

This is also true of accountability practices such as a focus on 5 or more A* – C at GCSE particularly the EBac measure. It is certainly arguable that trying to use the same assessment measure to track standards, hold schools to account and assess the summative outcomes for individual pupils is unlikely to improve the lot of those who gain least from the schooling system. It is a welcome development that the latest consultation on school accountability acknowledges these factors.

There are not many actions at national level which do not bear upon this issue. The rules of pupil admission are particularly important. Some argue that to give staff priority in admission runs counter to this principle, while giving priority to ‘children in care’ and those with SEN is compatible. Others suggest that a similar argument could be mounted for those eligible for free school meals. In short there are criteria supporting equity which should be common to all admission arrangements in publicly funded schools. At present this does not happen.

If the aim of state schooling is to act as the wise parent would act, then this first question is very important to those who care about ‘equity’ and ‘equality’.

‘Does the proposed change improve the skills and quality of teachers and promote respect and trust in the teaching profession?’

Next to pupils, teachers should be our main concern. Researchers agree that those national education systems with strong teacher development, and where teachers are well respected, do better than others. Among schools, that is also true and researchers also agree that the ‘teacher effect’ is even greater than the ‘school effect’ so far as better pupil outcomes are concerned.

In the immediate post war period the sum of primary advice was contained in a pamphlet ‘Story of a School’ published in 1949 and reissued a few years later. Its title is self-explanatory but the ministerial preface urged teachers to go and do similar pioneering work and trust their professional judgement. Such an approach might be advocated now but the over-prescriptive national system would not allow it in practice.

From the Literacy Hour to synthetic phonics there has been an anti-professional mistrust evident in successive ministerial edicts. If one compares how governments treat other professions, for example doctors, there is a clear need for a protocol covering pedagogical matters on which it is unhealthy for ministers to trespass. A generation of legislators has failed to distinguish between public accountability for the strategic management and delivery of a national education service and the discharge of individual professional responsibility which should be a matter of accountability in an employment context under high quality professional management. Multiple public accountability of teachers has resulted in chronic low morale and loss of self confidence which must be reversed.

There is an argument for something equivalent to NICE to be established – perhaps through the emerging role of the Education Endowment Fund – but in the meantime ministers should be obliged to justify any pronouncement on method by making it clear that it is always up to teachers in schools to make judgements on all professional matters in the light of best evidence.(See test question three)

What is the evidence to support the proposed change?’

Perhaps the most important test of all is to ascertain what the evidence says. It will be the case of course that there will rarely be unequivocal or uncontested evidence in support of one line of action or another. Nevertheless when a law is to be introduced or a regulation made, it should be required that the minister lists at least the following drawn up by an independent panel:

• Research evidence in support of the proposed course of action with an examination of countervailing evidence
• Any House of Commons report and appropriate recommendations
• HMI view
• Professional view (if appropriate)

The recent study by Cartwright and Hardy { ‘Evidenced-Based Policy; a practical guide to doing it better’ (O.U.P 2012)} highlights the place and limitations of Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) in the process and of the vital importance of understanding differences of context when learning from other places, as well as the subtleties of the detail of implementation. This is especially the case with attempting changes which work in one national context but do not when transferred to another. In the light of this an independent panel should be established and report publicly to the Secretary of State when any new or changed policy is being introduced and that the independent panel should outline a summary of advice and evidence based on the four bullet points above.

Assuming the context of the desirability of the principle of democratic accountability and subsidiarity, will the proposed change increase or decrease the power of the centre and the Secretary of State?’

We have referred to the fact that the Secretary of State now has many more powers than was once the case.

As we have outlined earlier however there is the need for democratic accountability and originally it was envisaged that much of that could and should be exercised locally. We agree with that starting point not least because we think that local knowledge can be powerful in securing equity for individual pupils and their parents.

Some of the powers which the Secretary of State has acquired should be taken away from him. It is astonishing that a system has been created whereby schools (in the form of Academies and Free Schools) have in effect been nationalised and are subject to private contract law to the Secretary of state who controls them in what they do. It is surprising too that parental complaints should be handled not by local government nor by an ombudsman but by the Secretary of State.

There are some powers of course which are best held centrally- for example securing an adequate supply of suitably qualified teachers and making sure that scarce capital resource is distributed fairly and to minimum acceptable standards. They are functions of planning which is necessary to secure equity. It makes no sense for the Secretary of State to abandon the duty in this respect, as has recently been done, as it will lead to shortages of teachers and schools with inadequate space and facilities. But there are other powers which are best exercised locally. A guiding principle of subsidiarity should start from the assumption that powers are best exercised and held democratically accountable locally.

‘Does the proposed change promote collaboration among schools and guard against the dangers of leaving schools and their pupils unfairly exposed to market forces?’

We have outlined earlier the special case and moral duty for those within education to treat children as they might become contrasting with the need later in life, through business and the market to treat adults as they are.

For this reason, it is our contention that in education we should be wary of applying market forces both in making provision and in setting school against school, especially when the evidence (e.g. the London Challenge) is that system school improvement comes about partly through collaboration and learning from each other.

The promotion of partnership among schools is therefore a recent and welcome development that might be supported through financial and inspection arrangements.

Schools are naturally competitive places where pupils are constantly encouraged to improve on their previous best both individually and in the school as whole. Team competition is encouraged in sport and other aspects of school life among pupils and staff. Excellence in performance and optimising the individual pupil’s development are the guiding principles behind the professional judgement of when and how to increase the competitive edge between pupils. (For example these two principles govern decisions about ‘setting’)

We should therefore approach the application of market competitive principles to the education system as a whole with equal care, especially as they are a generally accepted part of the rest of our society.

There are two ways in which the application of market principles may be incompatible with equity. The first is in the accountability system establishing winners and losers within the publicly funded system which requires as many losers as winners with all that implies for the pupils. Our accountability system as we have argued earlier is not ‘fit for purpose’ and is included in our list for priority attention listed below.

The second element of market involvement is in arrangements for the provision of schooling itself. The argument here is complex. If we look at the period before the widespread adoption of market principles and practices, it was generally accepted that textbooks, equipment and furnishings were best left to the private sector. That shouldn’t change. Since then however, in the name of what is called ‘outsourcing’ , inspection, advice, support services, school meals, and cleaning are just a few of the areas where the private sector has largely taken over from the public sector. The profit motive and what ‘plcs’ understand as ‘short-term shareholder value’ are not a good match with Temple’s moral argument for the treatment of children. Originally efficiency was the argument for private involvement and may have been well-founded but the track record of failure within the private sector is far worse than within the public sector.

Moreover it is especially hard to justify the primacy of shareholder profit when it is derived from money intended by the public for pupils’ education.

What we are arguing for is that these issues be addressed when policies are created, since we want people in education – and schools in particular – who are driven by ‘walking the extra mile’ not for profit but for moral purpose.

Conclusion and priorities

We have outlined our arguments and would urge any government to adopt the ‘test questions’ as their filter for determining policy and to set out its priorities for its programme as a means of redressing some of the serious and threatening imbalances which have emerged under all governments over the last 30 years.
Among the priority areas where we think answers to our ‘test questions’ would suggest some changes in current practice are the following:

• Access to high quality early years provision for the most vulnerable
• The curriculum
• Examinations
• Admission policies and practices
• Securing a sufficient supply of suitably qualified teachers
• Methods of Accountability
• Funding support for some 16-19 year olds
• Transitions in education
• Planning school places

Of course we accept that in a system where there is appropriate trust in the teaching profession many of the issues to which we draw attention will be powerfully affected by day to day practice.

We accept therefore that the actions of individual schools given their autonomy should also be subject to a similar set of tests but we believe that they should be promulgated initially by the profession itself, acting we hope through a National College for Teaching which we have advocated elsewhere.

Tim Brighouse: New Visions for Education Group September 2013