In this blog, our CEO, Gareth Conyard, talks about what we can expect in his co-authored new book on how to make better education policy.

Before joining the Teacher Development Trust, I was privileged to be a civil servant at the Department for Education for nearly twenty years.  Despite the justified criticism often targeted at the DfE, working there was a privilege, and I have been lucky enough to have been close to the nuts-and-bolts of policy making for governments of different political parties and ideologies.  When I left, I was (perhaps naively) surprised by how little the nitty-gritty of the process of running the DfE and making education policy was understood and I quickly wrote some blogs to try to explain what civil servants actually do.  As I read them now, I think they were as much about me trying to process leaving the institution that had been my home for nearly two decades, as they were about lifting the lid on the way the civil service operates.

They also feel reductive – explaining what is rather than what could be – and I knew, even as I wrote them, that I wanted to be more creative and positive about the future.  I also knew I could not do that alone, and so quickly agreed to work with the excellent Nansi Ellis (an ex-union official with whom I had dealt when in government).  Over coffee (and occasional glasses of wine), Nansi and I talked about how the system of creating and delivering education policy works, and where it is dysfunctional.  We reflected on our own experiences of being involved in policy-making processes, which were sometimes cohesive and comprehensive, but more often somewhere between sub-optimal and shambolic.  From these discussions, the outline of our new book emerged.

We start by trying to understand why things are as they are by looking at the historical, organisational, structural, and personal factors that influence decision-making in government and the wider system.  After all, if you want to make things better, you need to understand what you are dealing with.  We then look at alternatives from around the world, both in terms of examples from different countries as well as theoretical ideas and models that help to open new avenues of thought. We finish by proposing three overarching ways in which policy-making can be made better (along with tangible ways that changes can be taken forward).  We want to see policy-making that is collaborative, iterative, and which thinks long-term. 

Collaboration really should be a no-brainer.  If you want to take forward the best policy ideas, it must make sense to work with those who are involved in the development and delivery of education both to get their views on what needs to be done and to get them to buy-in to what you plan to do.  Unfortunately, this is not often the case, with engagement either being at a surface level (to give the impression of collaboration) or being deliberately combative to score short-term points in the media.  Ultimately, although a politician or a union general secretary might get some good coverage in the sector press, such posturing does little to help improve outcomes for children.

Iteration is, simply put, the improvement of an idea based on making changes as you learn more.  Sounds obvious, right?  Yet, one of the features of our education system is the lack of solid evaluation before different policy decisions are taken – too often to change direction completely or to cut funding for an initiative after just a few years.  The polarised nature of debate can mean that even minor iterations can be jumped on as evidence of a ‘U-Turn’ by opponents, so there is often little incentive for policy-makers to be brave in this area.  The result is often much more disruptive change based on ideology or short-term politics, all of which has a significant cost to the system both in terms of money, but also in terms of emotional energy.  It is no surprise that so many teachers and school leaders are burnt out.

Education is a long-term endeavour in this country, with dozens of teachers involved in the development, support, and education of a child over the two decades or more they spend in the system.  For the child, or parent, this is one experience.  For the policy-maker, it is too often chunked-up by phase or priority (early years, SEND, post-16) without any real attempt at coherence across time, leading to the risk of a disjointed education.  There is rarely any attempt to think about how an investment now might have a positive impact in the future, nor to give credit to past efforts when it comes to current performance.  Instead, short-term initiatives are prioritised (and then too often dropped when the next idea comes along).

Nansi and I have tried to show how things can be different, how policy-making can be more collaborative, iterative, and long-term.  With decades worth of practical experience behind us, we are not naïve about the challenges, and we include real, tangible options for policy-makers to think and act differently.  That does require a will, across the whole system, but not one without significant benefits for those involved, even in the short-term.  The alternative is to continue with the increasing polarisation of the education debate, powered by short-term initiatives and ideological posturing.  That is no way to govern, no way to influence policy.  Our system – our children – deserve better.