The Role of Policy Exchange: Part 2


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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.

Context:

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: “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)

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 2 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.

II. Choice, Academies, and Free Schools

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.

Before we look at the free schools model, it is important to have a grasp on the basic system of school choice which exists in the UK. The 1988 Education Reform Act gave parents the opportunity to state their preference about which school their child attended, and the Local Educational Authority (LEA) – who administered the admissions process – came to be held accountable for making sure that students were not refused admission to a school unless it was completely full.(6)

Despite garnering interest on an international level(7), this change has been viewed as largely inconsequential. In practice, as many have noted, it did not have a significant effect on parental potential to shape their child’s educational trajectory, as, even now, popular schools are oversubscribed, and every year there is an outcry as large numbers of children are only granted entry to their third and fourth choice schools. In theory, meanwhile, the change was not part of a determined move towards the marketisation of education, despite the similarities it had with some of the proposals of John Chubb and Terry Moe. This is demonstrated in the fact that, as well as introducing this element of “choice” to schooling, the 1988 Act also introduced a “National Curriculum” (NC), which sought to standardise the content of syllabi in all state-funded schools. This is important: in one fell swoop, England, Wales, and Northern Island embraced choice as a basic principle of education, while also welcoming a measure that served to limit the differences between schools. This is demonstrative of the fact that, at its initial stages of its choice policy, the UK did not pioneer competition as a feature of its educational landscape.

This changed in 2000 with the Academies Programme, which was created by the Labour Party and ended up – largely accidentally – paving the way for the free schools model. This programme created a different type of school in England;(8) these new “academies” were independent of Local Authority control and, as such, had increased autonomy over many aspects of education, including curriculum, pedagogy, and (more recently) pay. Although they have to take the national standardised exams, they do not have to follow the NC. Initially these schools (which could either be set-up from scratch, or converted from an existing school) had to have a private sponsor who contributed at least 10% of the academy’s capital costs in order to be authorised, however this is no longer required, as the Conservative government, following their election in May 2010, sought to make the conversion process easier for all schools.

So, funding requirements are less rigorous for private sponsors, making it easier for anyone – The TeacherToolkit Academies Trust(!) – to setup its own chain of schools …

At the same time as lifting restrictions on academy creation, the Conservative government also introduced the second new type of schools to the English education system: free schools. In June 2010, immediately after election, the Education Secretary at the time, Michael Gove, invited community groups to set forth their proposals to establish academy-style independent schools in the areas in which they lived. Referring directly to both the charter schools of the US and the model used in Sweden, he argued that free schools would “enable excellent teachers to create new schools and improve standards for all children… [and give schools] the freedom to innovate and respond directly to parents’ needs”.(9)

Since 2010, more than 300 free schools have been approved, and 171 have opened their doors. However, in general, there is accepted to be no conclusive evidence about their impact as yet. The recent report on academies and free schools by the Education Committee (a body which is appointed by the government to scrutinise the activity of the Department of Education) stated that, due to timing and lack of information, “Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change”; in no uncertain terms it declared, “it is too early to draw conclusions on the quality of education provided by free schools or their broader system impact.”(10)

At the time of publication, David Cameron pledged a government commitment for 500 more free schools over this Parliament.

End of part 2.

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


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