A Legacy of Thinking: Part 4

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What is the role of think tank, Policy Exchange?

Last week, I wrote a provoking blog which raised an important issue: the transparency of Policy Exchange. The post has been read by thousands of educators across the UK and further afield.

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 4

Following this post, I was contacted by an ex-teacher and Fulbright Scholar who wanted to share her academic research with me. @RachellBull 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.”

Rachel Bull has provided consent for her paper to be published here.

The series:

Below is part 4 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.

IV. A Legacy of 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Disclaimer: this was written in April 2015, and therefore several things are now out of date.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.

Since it begun in 2002, PX’s reports have covered topics from crime and the economy, to housing and the environment, but they have always shown an active interest in educational policy. The Education Team (generally two people) has produced 45 reports on Education and the Arts in 14 years, offering recommendations on leadership in schools, the length of the school day, and vocational training routes. A substantial part of this literature has been related to a market model for education.

shutterstock_128182871 "Emphasize our unique differences, pass it down." cartoon line up

Image: Shutterstock

The table below shows a very broad summary of the six main publications that cover this topic.(17)

Table 1. Summary of Policy Exchange Publications on School Choice




Key Argument


Tony Hockley and Daniel Nieto

Aimed to bring debate about school choice out of an “ideological rut”.

Looked at case studies of Sweden, Netherlands and the US, and claimed on this evidence choice is “not just an ideological pipe dream but a workable policy that can deliver clear benefits to children and be popular among parents”.


Eleanor Sturdy and Sam Freedman

Claimed school choice was not working in England- parents weren’t getting what they wanted, and much of schooling was still inadequate.
They said barriers to choice were “not legislative but political” and made recommendations to make the process of converting to academies much easier.


Sam Freedman and Daisy Meyland-Smith

Compared strengths and weaknesses of choice reforms in UK, US and Sweden and made recommendations for how the UK could create the best schools market (based around making approval process easier and more transparent).




Key Argument


Anna Fazackerley, Rachel Wolf and Alex Massey

Further criticised the barriers in place that were preventing the establishment of “genuinely independent state schools”. These included barriers to establishment, and barriers to autonomy.


James O’Shaughnessy

Assessed the success of academies and academy chains along with what it called “a large swathe of ‘coasting schools’”, and made recommendations, firstly for an “industrial policy” which would force failing schools under chain control, and secondly for private sector involvement in school improvement.


Andrew Laird and Justin Wilson

Made the argument for for-profit provision of school services, upholding that “extensive” privatisation in other countries “appears to be working”.

Designed model of “social enterprise schools” as a “halfway house” between for-profit and non-profit.

Although authored by different people (reflecting the changing staff of PX’s Education Team), these publications demonstrate a largely unified ideology which underpins a developing train of thought.

Privitisation Mechanisms:

The initial reports were concerned firstly with identifying problems with the existing choice model, and secondly with normalising the idea of educational marketisation through international comparisons. Having established this, PX’s recommendations were focussed on how the process of setting up “independent” schools (academies) could be made easier and more transparent, based on their conclusions that choice in the US and Sweden was working. Since 2010 policy recommendations have demonstrated an increased focus on privatisation mechanisms, reports arguing that successful educational providers should be encouraged to expand.

Perhaps most controversially, in 2012 two reports promoted the opening up of education to for-profit providers. This argument has disappeared from the most recent publications, arguably because these ideas are still too controversial in the current political climate.

A casual relationship …

As such, in advocating for the competitive benefits of free schools, PX’s 2015 report continues a long trend of a pro-market approach to education. No other think tank has prioritised these reforms to the extent of PX. They have run alongside developing school choice in English education, and played an active role in shaping how this looks, particularly since 2010 under the Conservative government. A 2013 interview with Sam Freedman (previous Director of Education of PX) demonstrated that PX are only too aware of the power they have in the Tory government: “the ideas behind structural reform, like free schools, had been around for some time and worked on in Policy Exchange”.

Freedman claimed a strong causal relationship between politicians and think tanks, whereby ideas were created and honed in the former, and picked up by the latter: “Policy development is much easier to do in a think tank… Parliamentarians and their staff don’t have much capacity. There is too much day-to-day nonsense going on”.(18)

In theory, this idea makes sense, and is arguably not problematic. Governments perceive problems in society that need to be tackled. They look beyond their immediate partisan ideas to find good solutions, in this case, from “independent”, research-rigorous think tanks who can play a key role in the spread of initiative. As leading political academic, Diane Stone argues, think tanks have the potential to “move ideas into politics”, working to “propel them [ideas] within the hearing range of decision-makers”.(19)

However, this relationship is made much more complicated when we look closer at these think tanks, and unpick the people and interests behind them.

All to be discussed in parts 5 and 6 due to be published later today …

End of part 4.

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

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