18 Think Tanks Every Teacher Should Know

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In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
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Who are the think tanks that influence government policy and what influence do they have on education pedagogy?

Whilst the term “think tank” with its present sense originated in the 1950s, such organisations date to the 19th century … Think tanks vary by ideological perspectives, sources of funding, topical emphasis and prospective consumers. (Dictionary)

Are you think-tank savvy?

*Disclaimer – likely to be some errors. Will amend post publication.

Did you know, that think tanks by law aren’t allowed to be political? I didn’t. They can lean left or right but cannot act in favour of a political party. So, although think tanks may be “left or right learning” or that their “policies correspond with governments”, it is worth noting that this is an informal blog and there is no intention to harm any charitable statuses. Thanks to Schools Week editor Laura McInerney for this helpful advice.

There are a large number of Think Tanks in the UK. I’ve selected a range of organisations every teacher should know who have some influence over education policy in the UK. Of course, there will be some missing, but there is an evolving need for teachers to become more savvy of think tanks in general. What’s their purpose and what do they do?

I hope this post presents a useful overview; a “Who’s who?” in the sector as a starting point for all educators in the UK. Below I have selected the most popular think tanks that have some influence over education news and/or publications and policies. For consistency and fairness, I have published them in alphabetical order and have provided the following common features:

  • Year founded
  • Overview; political spectrum
  • Impact on education and links to educational publications
  • People who run the organisation

18 Think Tanks Every Teacher Should Know by @TeacherToolkit Version 3

I’ve tried my best to place each selected think tank on the political spectrum. There may be errors and alternative views, so please leave your suggestions in the comments. There is no intention to harm charitable organisations through this graphic.

Who’s who?

Civitas Think Tank

  • Founded: 2000
  • Overview: Translated from Latin means ‘citizens’, the think tank describes itself as classical liberal and non-partisan. However tabloids have described it as a right-of-centre think-tank. Quoted on their website: “uniquely among think tanks, we play an active, practical part in rebuilding civil society, particularly by running schools on Saturdays and after-school hours so that children who are falling behind at school can achieve their full potential.”
  • Impact on education? Civitas provides teaching materials and guest speakers for schools. At the time of writing, there are 12 publications on education available to download, with Toby Young and teacher Robert Peal standing out as authors.
  • Chair: Before founding Civitas in 2000, Dr. David Green had been at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Think Tank list

  • Founded: 2004
  • Overview: The organisation’s stated aim is to “put social justice at the heart of British politics” and has been labelled one of the most influential on the British Conservative Party under the leadership of David Cameron. Definitely of the right in party and social terms.
  • Impact on education? Current policy work includes obesity, homelessness and employment with a number of contributions to education.
  • Chair: The Chief Executive is Andy Cook and its Chairman is Iain Duncan Smith MP.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 1920
  • Overview: Chatham House engages governments, the private sector, civil society and its members in open debate and confidential discussion on the most significant developments in international affairs. They have a long history of private seminar thinking and weekend retreats of the intellectuals (or their definition of intellectuals) of the age. ‘Chatham House rules’ is the term that flutters the spine of self-importance. There is not a political bias as such, but definitely an establishment bias – perhaps another typology?
  • Impact on education? Significant, but not well-known. There are over 490+ entires on their website with 186 research papers with 39 related to education in Europe.
  • Chair: Stuart Popham is chairman of Chatham House.

Demos Think Tank

  • Founded: 1993
  • Overview: Demos defines itself as independent of any political party, however it was seen as being close to the Labour Party in the run up to the general election (1997). Their work is brought together under four core programmes: welfare and public services; citizenship and education – a core research area for Demos; growth and good business; centre for the analysis of social media. Demos also has an open access policy, which means that all its publications are available to freely download under a Creative Commons licence.
  • Impact on education? There are a number of publications here in a nicely laid-out website. Demos has influenced education policy in some shape or form over a number of years.
  • Chair: The current Chief Executive is Claudia Wood, who joined the think tank in 2009 and previously worked for Tony Blair’s strategy unit. Wood is on Twitter.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: June 2016
  • Overview: Formerly CentreForum – who produced 105 public policy reports over the life of the last Parliament – Education Policy Institute has a Liberal Democrat steer and is connected to the movement for Academy schools. Its rebirth focuses its research on education and young people’s mental health, emphasising that it is an entirely independent, politically impartial organisation.
  • Impact on education? At the time of writing, EPI has published 43 research papers largely on all areas of education.
  • Chair: David Laws MP.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 2011
  • Overview: The EEF is an independent grant-making charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. 
  • Impact on education? In 2011 the Sutton Trust was awarded a £135 million arm’s length grant by the Government to establish a new initiative to boost the attainment of disadvantaged children. This fund was used to launch the Education Endowment Foundation. The Teacher Toolkit (I’m not biased) is arguably the greatest pragmatic resource UK education has received from any think tank.
  • Chair: Sir Kevan Collins is their Chief Executive.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 1884
  • Overview: Britain’s oldest think than and founders of the Labour Party, the Fabian Society is a (soft-left) socialist organisation whose purpose is to advance the principles of democratic socialism through democratic reform. You can imagine these have published countless articles and publications on education. Like most think tanks, the society has been criticised for receiving funding from companies registered in tax havens. They specialise in being dreadfully worthy, balanced, but with obligatory bleeding heart. They have a great history, previously a vehicle for aspiring MPs e.g. Ed Balls as its chair and are taken quite seriously in Westminster.
  • Impact on education? For such an old organisation, it would be difficult to pinpoint any research that has not had an influence. They have influenced British policy to the present day, from the postwar creation of the modern welfare state to the election of Tony Blair.
  • Chair: Andrew Harrop has been General Secretary of the Fabian Society since Autumn 2011. He is on Twitter. They have essentially lost its way as Labour has drifted around looking for a role and have left their iconic building as finances have been tightened.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 1944
  • Overview: Founded to promote parliamentary democracy, one of their first subscribers was Winston Churchill. The society is named after the Hansard Parliamentary Record, which publishes the proceedings of the British parliament. More than 60 years on, the Hansard Society claims to be universally recognised as the independent and non-partisan authority on Parliament and democracy. As a registered charity, the Hansard Society relies on funding from individual donations and grants.
  • Impact on education? There are over 30 years of research published on their site.
  • Chair: Appointed to the House of Lords as a life peer, Lord Sharkey is the acting chair.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 2008
  • Overview: The Institute for Government is the leading think tank working to make government more effective. A labour funder, IoG was named ‘think tank of the year in 2010’ by Prospect Magazine, the Institute’s stated aims are to engage with Members of Parliament and top UK civil servants by supporting the development and skills of politicians; conducting and funding research on public administration and government; providing ‘thought leadership’ on effective government through publications, seminars and events.
  • Chair: The Director of the Institute for Government is Bronwen Maddox. She is on Twitter.  One of the several creations of David (Lord) Sainsbury of Turville; a visionary and its chairman of the board.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 1988
  • Overview: The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is a progressive, left-wing think tank based in London. It publishes more than 50 reports each year and have some wide issues published on education. IPPR was the classic new labour think tank that took quite a hit post-2010, with reduced office space. It was funded in part by the clutch of wealthy business people around new labour e.g. Lord Hollick in the early 90s as they realised that to get into/stay in/be useful in government, a captive think tank or two were essential sources of thinking/knowledge/ideas and a challenge to the opposition.
  • Impact on education?  IPPR has shifted its New Labour place but still fundamentally is soft-left. Undoubted good work but there have been a few howlers too which we are still living with e.g. their immigration policy rationale. They are also a Brexit contributor of course. Their impact on education? Negligible.
  • Chair: It’s director is Tom Kibasi. Previously, he worked at the UK Department of Health, where he was policy adviser to Professor Lord Darz.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 2000
  • Overview: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is an independent organisation – its position is centre-left, but much more defined by social justice and not dependent on government or lobbyists for its funding, therefore far more use – working to inspire social change through research, policy and practice. A recent blog post by Andy Williamson on the LSE’s site highlighted some of the perceived inadequacies of the current think tank model of research and influencing. Whilst [they] do not consider [themselves] to be a think tank in the same vein, at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation [they] hope to provide a slightly different way of approaching the development of evidence-informed policy and practice that combines the rigour of academic research with the impact that think tanks sometimes have.
  • Impact on education? They have a number of publications on poverty and how this affects children’s aspirations and attainment in education.
  • Chair: Julia Unwin has been Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation since 2007. She is on Twitter.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 2009
  • Overview: Is the new kid on the block; ‘the education and youth ‘think and action-tank’ that carries out policy research and campaigning, as well as working directly with schools, teachers, and education and youth organisations.
  • Impact on education? LKMco publish some very useful reports on education.
  • Chair: Director Loic Menzies is an ex-teacher and is an ex-senior teacher. He is on Twitter.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 2009
  • Overview: Founded by Rachel Wolf, the New Schools Network was set up in 2009. They are a small charity that works to transform the standard of education by delivering more high-quality free schools in England; campaigning to win public and political support for free schools. The support free school applicants through its Development Programme
  • Impact on education? In May 2010, the Department for Education awarded the group £500,000 to advise on behalf of the department. The DfE also approved grant funding of a maximum of £400,000 for 2011–2012 and £650,000 in 2012-2013. In September 2010, a formal complaint was heard by the Charity Commission over concerns about the impartiality of the New Schools Network. Rachel Wolf responded that the complaints were politically motivated.
  • Chair: Their director was Baroness Evans, but designate Toby Young is their newly appointed director. He is on Twitter I believe, but sadly Teacher Toolkit is blocked. I’ve no idea why? Maybe it’s because I remind him about what he said about teachers? I once co-wrote a (rejected) application for a free school. Let’s be friends Toby?

Think Tank

  • Founded: 2002
  • Overview: Founded by Michael Gove, the conservative equivalent of Demos, established Policy Exchange is a centre-right think tank. Their “research is independent and evidence-based and we share our ideas with policy makers from all sides of the political spectrum.”
  • Impact on education? In recent times, significant. The Free Schools movement and the Pupil Premium feature in many of their publications that have influenced national policy.
  • Chair: Dean Godson is their director in a clumsy laid our webpage. If you can find out who their donors are, then you’ll have a transparency story worth publishing.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 1999
  • Overview: Based in London, Policy Network provides progressive solutions to the challenges of the 21st century and the future of social democracy.
  • Impact on education? There are a number of education publications, but nothing that stands out as noteworthy or influential.
  • Chair: Matthew Laza is the Director with Peter Mandelson MP as the President.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 2011
  • Overview: The Education Foundation is the UK’s first independent, cross sector, education think tank; “to accelerate reform and innovation across the UK, to help Britain create a world-class education system.”
  • Impact on education? Its mission is to help Britain create a world-class education system and achieve this through accelerating positive reform and innovation in schools, colleges, universities and businesses across the UK. You could argue that they are already starting to achieve this through Education Reform Summit; an annual conference which has seen the likes of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Tristram Hunt and Nicky Morgan take centre stage. The think tank has also kick-started (2013) the UK’s first education technology accelerator, EdTech Incubator, a launchpad for international edtech businesses in the UK, providing a grassroots platform for startups at BETT Futures in 2014. They have published 8 reports since 2011.
  • Chair: Led by Ty Goddard and Ian Fordham with a growing panel of advisors. They are both on Twitter.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 1754
  • Overview: The RSA originally specifically precluded premiums for patented solutions. In Great Britain and Ireland, the RSA offers regional activities to encourage Fellows to interact with each other locally and to address local topics of interest. Centre-left, but the RSA historically is independent and whilst ’thought’ defines anyone as a radical, RSA has always been politically neutral.
  • Impact on education? They continue to be influential. The RSA animate series has sparked the imagination of teachers. They have a vast range of action research publications.
  • Chair: RSA Chief Executive is Matthew Taylor (2006). He is on Twitter.

Think Tank List

  • Founded: 1997
  • Overview: The Sutton Trust is an educational charity which aims to improve social mobility and address educational disadvantage.
  • Impact on education? The trust has had significant impact on education over the past decade. It has undertaken over 170 research studies (at the time of writing) and funded a wide range of (200+) practical programmes to support young people in early years, primary and secondary school, and in accessing higher education and the professions. In 2011 the Sutton Trust was awarded a £135 million arm’s length grant by the Government to establish a new initiative to boost the attainment of disadvantaged children. This fund was used to launch the Education Endowment Foundation (see above).
  • Chair: The charity was set up by educational philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl. He has recently joined Twitter.

A report by Transparify, an organisation that provides the first-ever global rating of the financial transparency of major think tanks, provided damming results of some of those that influence our educational system. To Think or Not To Think Tank asks: is there a relationship between transparency and the number of times think tanks are quoted in the press?

I hope this provides teachers with a useful overview. There are hundreds of others listed here. If you are interested in who funds which Think Tank and their transparency, visit Who Funds You?

Would it be worthy to consider international think tanks and their influence on policy in the UK?


Thanks to those who helped construct this post. Download the Teacher Toolkit graphic here.


5 thoughts on “18 Think Tanks Every Teacher Should Know

  1. A valuable start on a much needed summary of this space sir but a little light in a few key areas so to hopefully make it a useful bookmark on this subject here’s some feedback and suggestion for starters for your consideration if I may be so bold and assuming you aren’t being paid off for missing this out as I see the Teacher Toolkit logo is off on the far right hand side of the chart :-O

    – IMHO the RSA do a lot of good work like Innovative Education and run a few Academies, but frankly given their network of 35k fellows really could have mobilised such a massive force much more effectively in an area as far reaching as education. I gave a relatively popular 3 minute talk there 2 years ago entitled ‘Walking the Talk’ http://bit.ly/scorsapitch and being of an old school (not neo) liberal leaning and it being a fairly liberal organisation was lambasted recently for proudly including the initials FRSA in my Twitter Profile by right wing traditionalists like Andrew Old (or is he a left wing traditionalist – never too sure). Sadly as Prof Guy Claxton said in ‘Educating Ruby’, most progressives run off and hide behind a tree when the trads start throwing thing around as they have been for a few years now.

    – Also in saying ‘Centre Right’ have you written about the same Policy Exchange that I know or did the scale get recalibrated recently? Weren’t they set up by the not very centre right politician and household name Michael Gove and now major influencers and supporters of organisations like ResearchEd and Parents and Teachers for Excellence who I’m sure both include lots of great grass roots teachers and do lots of great work but that at the same time many feel, behind their misdirecting Orwellian double speak names, represent fairly hard core right wing neo-liberal traditionalist education thinking.

    But what do I know. I’m just a dad.

    (This feedback does not represent the views of my employers, collaborators or supporters. But do let me know if it represents yours?)

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