A Rising Tide: Part 3

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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 Role of Policy Exchange: Part 3

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 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)

shutterstock_430725784 Rubber stamping that says 'Stop Press'.

“… the launch of A Rising Tide, along with Cameron’s synchronised announcement, made the headlines across the UK.”

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 3 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.

III. A Rising Tide

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.

 A Rising Tide, along with Cameron’s synchronised announcement, made the headlines across the UK. To understand the power and importance of the PX report, it is vital to understand its origins.”

… just six weeks after the Education Committee made this declaration, PX published their conclusions about just that. The headline findings – which found their way straight into the headlines on the 9th March 2015 – of A Rising Tide spoke specifically of the “competitive benefits” of the free schools model. It was argued that the rising tide of competition is driving up standards in non-free schools, and as such, their recommendations held that everything should be done to encourage their expansion: free schools should be authorised in areas of educational need (where standards are low), and not just of basic need (where school places are needed); expansion grants should be provided to encourage existing providers to open more schools; and companies providing support for groups who want to establish free schools (specifically one called the New Schools Network) should be expanded.

These findings are based on the report’s analysis which looked at schools which were geographically close-to, and demographically “similar” to, all of the free schools opened since 2010. They then looked at the “headline results measures” of these schools (national exams taken at ages 11 and 16), and compared them both before and after the free school had opened close to them. From this came the conclusion (presented in bold font in the report’s “Executive Summary”) that “Free Schools are helping to raise standards not just for the pupils who attend them but for other pupils across the local community – especially those in lower performing schools”.(11) While they did attest briefly that correlation does not equal causation, and recognised that in some schools (in particular high performing primaries) they in fact found evidence of a negative correlation, this information was not recognised by the plethora of newspapers and media outlets that reported the findings.

Free schools are a contentious issue, and immediately following the report – while the Conservative Party worked hard to promote the results – an array of criticisms sprung up. Political criticism was to be expected. There was significant pushback from the Labour Party (who have since promised in their manifesto to eliminate the “flawed” free school policy if they win the election(12) with the Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt, attacking Cameron’s determination to “carry on regardless” with what he described as a policy that was “expensive, wasteful and failing young people”.(13) Meanwhile the UK’s largest teacher’s union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), issued a press release saying that it did not accept the conclusions, directly attacking the data on which they were based.

The academic criticism was just as aggressive. Simon Burgess (Professor of Economics at Bristol University) fact-checked the report and found that differences overall were neutral, and that “improvements” shown by schools closest to free schools are in fact in line with the national average gains in the same period, demonstrating that “there is no evidence […] of a spill-over from competitive pressure”.(14) Dr Rebecca Allen of University College London critiqued the cursory consideration given to other variables that may have impacted the minimal results (such as increased funding over to deprived schools, and the likelihood of outliers regressing to the mean).(15) Meanwhile, many drew attention to small sample sizes, arguing that a pool of only 171 schools (many of them open only one year) is not valid to make conclusions, particularly on the level of sub-group analysis (16, 19, 35 and 22 primaries and 5, 20, 28 and 26 secondaries opened in 2011-2014, respectively). Dr Stephen Gorard (Durham University) lambasted the analysis within quartiles which saw “on average… less than one neighbouring school being compared to each free school per quartile”.(16)

And yet, despite these problems – some of which are recognised (albeit passingly, and not in bold typeface) in the report itself – the launch of A Rising Tide, along with Cameron’s synchronised announcement, made the headlines across the UK. To understand the power and importance of the PX report, it is vital to understand its origins, and it is to these that this paper shall turn now.

End of part 3.

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

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