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 7
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.”
Rachell Bull has provided consent for her paper to be published here. They are her own views.
Disclaimer: this was written in April 2015, and therefore several things are now out of date.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.
The influence of PX in both directing and legitimising the Conservative policy of educational choice through free schools is strong, although without further information about the relationship between these two policy players, it is difficult to speculate as to its exact nature.
Nonetheless, with the Rising Tide report, PX extend their 13 year record of producing high-profile “empirical” publications advertising the potential and benefits of free schools, even as the Department of Education demands that it is too early for such results, and elsewhere in the world, similar models garner increasing scrutiny and criticism.(43) Meanwhile, although the quality of their research does receive some analysis and critique (granted mainly just in the margins of the educational cybersphere), the origins do not. Instead, PX remains underneath the radar, as one of a group of think tanks whose lack of funding transparency and intellectual openness cannot help but compromise the “complet[e] independen[ce]” that they claim to have.
If it, and other think tanks like it, are to continue to influence both policy and the “climate of opinion” in British society, we must demand a reevaluation of how their finances managed, their vested interests are regulated (or at least made transparent), and their findings are reported.
You can download the academic research (in full) at the bottom of this post.
This is part 7, the last in the series.
- 43 OECD. 2015. “Improving Schools in Sweden: An OECD Perspective”
Rachell Bull is a former teacher who is now a Fulbright Scholar and Leadership Development Officer at Teach First. The full series are entirely her own views.
So, there we have it. Over the past week, I asked a simple question which has stirred a hornet’s nest:
- Who are the donors that fund Policy Exchange?
- Why should teachers listen to Policy Exchange?
- and the question that raised a few eyebrows: is there an inverse relationship between transparency and the number of times Policy Exchange are quoted in the press?
“… locked up for asking a simple question …”
Thanks to @RachellBull and her research paper, we have discussed The Role of Policy Exchange (part 1) and selection and choice (part 2); that funding requirements are less rigorous for private sponsors, making it easier for anyone to open up an academy or free school. For-profit schools can only be the next thing that is championed, as alluded to in these 3 PX blogs. Along with Cameron’s synchronised announcement, A Rising Tide (part 3) publication by PX made the headlines across the UK. To understand the power and importance of the PX report, it is vital to understand its origins, we looked at the Legacy of Thinking (part 4): a strong causal relationship between politicians and think tanks make policy development much easier to do in a think tank as Parliamentarians and their staff don’t have much capacity”.
In part 5: Behind the Thinking including trustees, I published the names from Rachel Bull’s paper. I have been told these are easily available on request, but a question 1000s of others would have asked: why the lack of transparency in the first place? For 12 years, individual reports have not included details of funders since 2004, the majority of the publications, including A Rising Tide, merely offering vague acknowledgements to people and corporations. Apparently, transparency is now on the agenda and is a step forward. As profiled on Who Funds You?, a site which asks think tanks to reveal their funders, providing a score out of five for transparency and accountability. PX rates ‘D’ on its scale (A-E) of transparency. On PX’s website, we can observe that trustees listed here, but there are no donors.
Finally, in part 6, the final post of this series, the paper discussed ‘Who is Paying for the Thinking?’ and ‘Who is Doing the Thinking?‘ Without information about PX’s donors, we can only speculate about the impact of funds on the “thinking” that it is producing. The danger that an epistemic community might lead to the creation of an inward- looking institution, risks the influence of vested interests influencing research – even without the direct influence of money. Meanwhile, although the quality of their research does receive some analysis and critique (granted mainly just in the margins of the educational cybersphere), the origins do not.
If PX, and other think tanks like it, are to continue to influence both policy – particularly in education – and the press, we must demand a reevaluation of how finances are managed and regulated (or at least made transparent), and their findings are reported.
Rachell Bull kindly shared her academic research (part of her MA at Columbia) with Teacher Toolkit after posting: is there an inverse relationship between transparency and the number of times Policy Exchange are quoted in the press? Without her generosity, many teachers who read this blog would not be aware on’ the issue of transparency’ that you have read here in full.
Please click here (to share a simple tweet) to acknowledge Rachell and her work, then download the paper below.
You can download the full research paper here.
Rachell Bull is a former teacher who is now a Fulbright Scholar and Leadership Development Officer at Teach First. The work published in this paper are her own views.