To Think or Not To Think (Tank)?

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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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.

Policy Exchange Transparify

Transparify Think Tank Transparency Report 2016 – page 7

Not so great when compared to the Fabian Society, Demos,  or Civitas.

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?

Rating criteria:

“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.”

Policy Exchange Transparify

Transparify Think Tank Transparency Report 2016 – page 18

“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:

  1. Who are the donors that fund Policy Exchange?
  2. Why do the media listen to their views on education?
  3. Why do Schools Week and TES quote Policy Exchange, knowing their views are undeclared?
  4. Should we trust what the newspapers report?
  5. How often do other think tanks feature?
  6. 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:

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;

  1. Who pays who for tabloid articles?
  2. Do the TES pay Policy Exchange to write an article for their paper?
  3. Do Schools Week pay Policy Exchange to write an article for their paper?
  4. Or do Policy Exchange pay for the feature? If so, this throws up further questions.

shutterstock_322803332 Freedom of speech crisis concept and censorship in expression of ideas symbol as a human tongue wrapped in old barbed wire as a metaphor for political correctness pressure to restrain free talk.

Do we fear political correctness pressure to restrain free talk?

Image: Shutterstock

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.

How often are think tanks reported in our education newspapers?

The figures are very crudely calculated and both columns contain a different search criteria due to the restrictions on each website.
Think TankNo. quoted in TES searchNo. quoted in Schools Week search
Education Foundation21933
Fabian Society843
Policy Exchange94499
Based on 20 articles per search page.Based on 10 articles per search page.

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.


@TeacherToolkit logo new book Vitruvian man TT

There is an interesting article here, shared by @AliceWoolley1:

Secretive thinktanks are crushing our democracy.

18 thoughts on “To Think or Not To Think (Tank)?

  1. Fascinating Ross – and thank you for exploring this thread. I hope TES might answer some questions too. Just who pays the piper?

  2. I read stuff across the range. As a left-leaning policy person, I find their stuff better researched and they hit on the system’s stress points, regardless of whether their conclusions seem congenial. I suspect topical relevance explains their citation rate.

    1. Fair point. It would be good to see them rise up in the transparency ranks so they could muster a little more kudos from the teaching profession. They do publish interesting stuff. It would also be great to see the newspapers quote a wider range of Think Tanks too.

  3. Good that you raise this issue. ‘Independent evidence based research’ in a research journal would have to cite sources of funding. Good question why a think tank proclaiming its independence wouldn’t be transparent on funding. Wonder if / how they will respond?

  4. I am really pleased you highlighted the issue. The question is whether think tanks are independent research organisations or lobbying groups. If their funding is not completely transparent then they must be assumed to be the latter. While not all funding requires that the organisation produce research with a particular emphasis, if there is no transparency as to who funds it and why, then it is necessary to assume the funding is for a purpose. So if the sources of funding are not transparent a think tank has to be considered as a lobbying organisation and not independent researchers. This then has a knock on effect with media with which the think tank has a relationship. Education newspapers undermine their own credibility if they do not uphold these standards and not make it clear about the nature of the think tank.

  5. Well done, Ross, for highlighting this again. @GrahamBM got no light shone on it when he first raised it – just a pile of vitriol instead. I’m sure you’ll get some too. But you’re just asking a very valid question: what do they have to hide in terms of their funding? And why hasn’t there been some investigative journalist pursue this?

  6. Good questions Ross

    Policy Exchange, like the majority of think tanks, isn’t independent. They are biased and seek to promote policies that reflect their world view.

    Transparency isn’t part of right-wing think tanks agenda (they are toward the bottom while left-leaning think tanks are toward the top). And they are lobbyists, bound by certain codes of conduct while they blatantly seek to influence opinion directly and via the media.

    Similarly Transparify has its own agenda and seeks, through the ‘fresh air’ of publicity, to create value in transparency. With enough followers like you and me, the value will increase and even the most neo-liberal market promoting right-wing think tanks will buy it up.

    Most newspapers are typically funded in the same way, with a certain bias. Call it their mission, vision and values if you wish.

    Newspapers want good copy, and think tanks can provide it, sometimes without the most rigorous research. They won’t be in a hurry to investigate unless their is clear wrong doing. In this case, keeping funders private isn’t yet widely accepted as being wrong. You just don’t like it.

    1. The question I now have, is if newspapers are happy to expose school issues, why won’t any journalist tackle transparency of think tanks that feature in their own press? I still haven’t had that question answered.

      1. I don’t think you’ll find a satisfactory answer to that question. But challenging the complicit bias towards Policy Exchange in education press, particularly with the huge number of times they are quoted or cited, is worth doing. Is there such paucity of alternative views on education policy or competence promoting them? Or are journalists being lazy and not investigating either the competence and credibility of Policy Exchange (of which funding transparency is only a marginal part) or simply giving scant attention to alternative research and policy proposals.

      2. This is exactly the point I wanted to raise. Some teachers have attacked the suggestion, one claiming they would take their child out of the school I work in… just because of this blog! Others say the agreement between PX and their paper is ‘private’.

  7. I can’t comment on the funding aspect of this question. But on the question of whether publications pay Policy Exchange for articles, or whether Policy Exchange pays the publication, I imagine publications such as TES would under no circumstance allow Policy Exchange (or anyone else) to pay to have their features published. This would be advertorial and in line with the Advertising Standards Authority rules would have to be clearly marked as such. I do think it’s quite likely that Policy Exchange writers don’t get paid, however – if you look at sites such as the Guardian’s Comment is Free, I think it’s fairly standard for freelance journalists to be paid but for people representing, say, a pressure group or organisation to write for free.

    It’s interesting that Policy Exchange gets quoted far more than other think tanks. But, as a journalist, I I suspect this may be to do with being good self-publicists – making themselves available to the press and being free with quotable soundbites. A journalist on a tight deadline will think: “X is good for a quote, I’ll call him”. Perhaps Policy Exchange publishes more research than other educational think tanks – again, a new piece of research, even if it’s a dodgy one, is still a news story.

    1. Good points. In some articles I’ve seen, it’s an individual writing on behalf of PX. Think they also have a weekly column. So, licence for individual, not the organisation. Anyway. No one seems to know and no one is willing to answer or any journalist willing to tackle the issue at heart. Who funds PX?

  8. Owen Jones in his recent book ‘The Establishment’ has an in depth critique of Think Tanks and their role in influencing gvt. and the wider debates in the media and society – a role (for some) that have dubious moral purpose.

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