Is there an inverse relationship between transparency and the number of times Policy Exchange are quoted in the press?
If so, should we trust the think tank, Policy Exchange?
To all my dear readers,
I’ve been following a number of think tanks for a couple of years. This may not prove to be a popular post, in terms of content and number of readers. However, despite me putting off this post for many weeks, it is worth sharing for those who consider themselves to be slightly geekish and interested in how politics may fund education and its media.
This post offers some important and awkward questions.
Enough of Experts!
Over the past few months, I have read numerous blogs by Graham Brown-Martin who has written a series of posts exposing some truths behind our education system here in the UK. Notably, Who are the faceless elites behind the UK’s most influential think tank? is his most alarming read.
Think tanks are a body of experts providing advice and ideas on specific political or economic problems. Of course, we live in times where according to Michael Gove, the inaugural chairman of the UK think tank, Policy Exchange, “people have had enough of experts”. So this makes it somewhat troubling that Policy Exchange, a think tank that wields formidable influence on British government policy, falls right at the bottom of the Transparify report.
On their website, Policy Exchange claim to be;
“… the UK’s leading think tank. As an educational charity our mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas which deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy. The authority and credibility of our research is our greatest asset. Our research is independent and evidence-based and we share our ideas with policy makers from all sides of the political spectrum. Our research is strictly empirical and we do not take commissions. This allows us to be completely independent and make workable policy recommendations. There are numerous examples of where our policy ideas have been taken forward by government. Below are just a few examples:
- Directly elected police commissioners
- The pupil premium
- Free Schools.
Transparent or Opaque?
In Brown-Martin’s post, he shares a report by @Transparify, an organisation that provides the first-ever global rating of the financial transparency of major think tanks. The read is fascinating and is fairly damming of Policy Exchange!
In early 2014, we visited the websites of over 150 think tanks in over 40 countries to find out whether they provide information on who funds them and how much they receive from each source. The good news is that there already is momentum towards greater transparency. In early 2015, we followed up with a second round of ratings of the same think tanks to see whether their transparency has improved. This momentum has held for our 2016 ratings — think tanks around the world are becoming more and more transparent.
Well, it looks as though Policy Exchange are not so transparent after all?
Look at the very bottom of this table.
How is transparency calculated?
“Transparify individually contacted all 169 think tanks … at least twice during 2013-2015. These think tanks know what we are doing, understand why we are doing it, and know that they can approach us for help with becoming more transparent should they wish to do so. They were also aware, through our 2015 report, that we would re-assess them again in late 2015 for the present report.
Transparify rates the extent to which think tanks publicly disclose through their websites where their funding comes from. We visited think tanks’ websites and looked at the funding and donor information disclosed online, including in online annual reports. Institutions rated with the maximum of five stars are highly transparent about who funds them. Think tanks with four stars are broadly transparent; typically, they do not disclose the precise amounts given, but instead group their donors into several funding brackets. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the funding of think tanks with zero stars or one star is highly opaque as they fail to disclose even the names of some or all of their donors.”
So, Policy Exchange are highly opaque in comparison to others.
You only need to take a look at the top of their website to see who advocates their policies! He had a really good Brexit campaign didn’t he?
“During August and September 2015, Transparify emailed the media contacts (where discernible from the website) at all UK think tanks scheduled for rating to inform them of the upcoming rating and to invite them to place additional funding information online by 01 November 2015.”
“We contacted both ‘old cohort’ think tanks and the new additions to our sample in this way. In cases in which think tanks did not acknowledge receipt of the original email, we followed up through additional emails, tweets and/or phone calls until we had ascertained that each institution had received an email explaining the rating’s purpose, methodology and timeline.”
So, the awkward questions I would like to ask, are this:
- Who are the donors that fund Policy Exchange?
- Why do the media listen to their views on education?
- Why do Schools Week and TES quote Policy Exchange, knowing their views are undeclared?
- Should we trust what the newspapers report?
- How often do other think tanks feature?
- Are think tanks independent research organisations or lobbying groups?
There are a few stand out articles that go against the right-leaning think tank’s values. Here are a couple I’ve picked out:
- Ten quick thoughts on the schools fair funding consultation (March 2016)
- 5 reasons why a return to grammar schools is a bad idea (December 2014)
Whereas, articles like ‘How to solve the ‘teacher recruitment crisis?’ (March 2016) only support the view that Policy Exchange have ulterior motives: that any ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ can become a teacher, unqualified through the back door and straight into the classroom.
Who funds who?
I know I have been paid for articles for Schools Week and in other cases, been quoted freely for a soundbite or two in the TES. But with such a huge influence on the papers;
- Who pays who for tabloid articles?
- Do the TES pay Policy Exchange to write an article for their paper?
- Do Schools Week pay Policy Exchange to write an article for their paper?
- Or do Policy Exchange pay for the feature? If so, this throws up further questions.
Do we fear political correctness pressure to restrain free talk?
Digging deeper …
We only need to conduct a simple search on the TES to find ‘policy exchange’ is quoted 944 times at the time of writing. And on the Schools Week website? 9 pages of articles (10-12 articles per search page) where the think tank has consistently quoted, even twice, this month (and here). Countless examples of opinion from those outside of the classroom, influencing what teachers are doing on the ground. Of course, don’t get me wrong, not everyone can be a teacher and the world needs people who are afraid to get their hands dirty.
How does this frequency compare to other think tank agencies? Well, Demos – a broadly transparent think tank – feature on the TES website just 344 times. And in Schools Week? Just one page in the returned search! Finally, just for the sake of it as we’ve come this far, Civitas feature in the TES website a mere 87 times. Schools Week? Just 5 articles – not even close to one page returned.
This is not an attack on both these newspapers which I respect. It is a call for greater transparency and responsible journalism. Here is a crude table (search engine) I have made to show how often any think tank name appears in a search on either website.
[table id=3 /]
In summary, a Brown-Martin writes:
… In some cases these “experts” have been so introduced in print or broadcast that many people have mistaken them for elected members of our government. Yet, no, they are in fact funded by a group of undisclosed donors who, in return for their substantial donations, influence the political decision-making of the UK.
I know much of this is well-above my head and station, but at least it is worth highlighting to you, my dear reader. Leave your views in the comments section below.
There is an interesting article here, shared by @AliceWoolley1: