The Role of Policy Exchange: Part 1

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What is the role of think tank, Policy Exchange?

This week, I wrote a provoking blog, raising an important question for education: the transparency of Policy Exchange.

Think tanks are a body of experts providing advice and ideas on specific political or economic problems. It is 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 (table ranking here / report here); funded by a group of undisclosed donors who, in return for their donations, influence the political decision-making of the UK.


The majority of teachers – including myself – have little time to look carefully at Think Tanks, know who they are or what they actually do. Of course, policy determines the news and the press have a duty of care, to determine and report on what teachers can read.

It is only a matter of time before educators reject what think tanks say, if their lack of transparency is exposed. (tweet: @TeacherToolkit)

The original blog generated open and transparent responses from the editors of TES and Schools Week when I quoted the frequency of ‘Policy Exchange’ being attributed in their papers. In my blog, I was asking if teachers should trust ‘think tank experts’ if an organisation lacks transparency. The main purpose was to raise awareness about an opaque think tank that explicitly state, for example: “there is no need to up-skill or professionalise teaching.”

No-one yet has been able to answer my original question:  So, I will raise the issue again:

Post-publication, I was contacted by an ex-teacher and Fulbright Scholar who wanted to share her academic research. She said:

I really enjoyed reading your blog post – think it’s a critical issue across the board with think tanks. Funding is worrying, but also the self-affirming ‘epistemic communities’ that make up think tanks. (@RachellBull)

shutterstock_138702488 Design showcase with the word ideas exhibiting a light bulb

” … a transnational network of knowledge-based experts who help decision-makers to define the problems they face …”

Image: Shutterstock

The series:

Rachel Bull has provided consent for her paper to be published here. She is a former teacher who is now a Fulbright Scholar and Leadership Development Officer at Teach First.

Below is part 1 in a series of 7 posts:

  1. The Role of Policy Exchange
  2. Choice, Academies and Free Schools
  3. A Rising Tide
  4. A Legacy of Thinking
  5. Behind the Thinking including trustees
  6. Issue one and two: who is Paying for the Thinking? Who is Doing the Thinking?
  7. Conclusion.

Free Thinking:

Disclaimer: this was written in April 2015, and therefore several things are now out of date. Everything was accurate at time of writing, and of course, the core argument still stands.

Title: The Role of Policy Exchange in the English Free Schools Policy

Introduction: On Monday 9th March, 2015, the centre-right British think tank Policy Exchange launched its report A Rising Tide. In this, Natasha Porter and Jonathon Simons argued for the “competitive benefits” of the free schools model, a policy introduced by the Conservative Party five years earlier.

1. On the very same morning, the Prime Minister David Cameron, announced both the creation of another 49 free schools  (joining the 255 already commissioned during his five years in office), and his intentions to open a further 500 if he was re-elected in the May 2015 General Election.

2. The coinciding of these two events was, of course, no coincidence. In the United Kingdom, policy think tanks span the political spectrum and often have close relationships with key governmental players who share similar partisan beliefs. Political parties are frequently seen drawing upon the research and innovation of think tanks when designing and promoting new policies, while also referring to their “independent” findings to chart the successes and failures of existing ones. And yet, although this close relationship is acknowledged and even accepted (in some areas at least), little research has been done to unpick its exact nature, and to evaluate how the relationship is understood in non-specialist spheres. This paper looks to begin this task, in a very specific case: that of Policy Exchange (PX), the British Conservative Party, and the free schools policy.

After providing some brief context to the free school model, this paper will provide an introduction to the 2015 report, and how it was both used by politicians and the media, and received by academics and those involved in education. It will then look to explore the roots of its findings in the context of PX’s educational research over the course of its 13-year history, before evaluating the organisation as a whole and situating their findings within this important contextual background. Finally it will analyse – and question – the role that think tanks play in modern British politics and look to reassess how we understand the “thinking” going on within these influential organisations.

Before this analysis is begun, it is important to state that, although PX and the Conservative Party are the focus, this is only due to the limited scope of the current paper, and the fact that they have been so vocal in promoting this particular policy. This should not be seen as a targeted critique of this particular – or unique – relationship, but rather that it is considered somewhat of a microcosm through which to draw out common themes of a more general think tank culture. Similar conclusions could no doubt be made across time, and allegiances. Many have drawn attention to the close relationships between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and the Adam Smith Institute, while others look to the ideological support provided by “Tony’s cronies” (including Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research [IPPR]) during the rise of New Labour in the 1990s, which the Guardian has argued “remade the party by both propelling it forward and giving it ideological ballast”.

As such, although this analysis focusses on the right, its conclusions are non-partisan, and demand that we reassess the power of think tanks in legitimising policy across the political spectrum.

End of part 1.

  • 1 Policy Exchange. 2015. A Rising Tide: The Competitive Benefits of Free Schools
  • 2. Cameron, David. “Free schools announcement: David Cameron’s speech”, 9th March 2015.
  • 3. Denham, Andrew and Mark Garnett. 1998. British think-tanks and the climate of opinion (London; Bristol: UCL Press)
  • 4. Bentham, Justin. 2006. “The IPPR and Demos: Think Tanks of the New Social Democracy”, The Political Quarterly 77(2): 166-174
  • 5. Williams, Zoe. “Brains for hire: the think-tank”, The Guardian, 27th October 2010

Rachel Bull is a former teacher who is now a Fulbright Scholar and Leadership Development Officer at Teach First.


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