RSA Opening Minds

Levers and educational ends and means

The former education secretary, Estelle Morris, made an interesting speech this week. Addressing school leaders at the National College for School Leadership conference in Birmingham she argued that politicians in England used four levers for shaping or controlling the direction of schools policy:

  • Structures, where Estelle recognised that it was far too easy for politicians to fiddle with the way things were organised
  • Markets and the development of greater choice for parents – which she broadly supported
  • Accountability, through the way that inspection and performance tables operated; and 
  • Curriculum

The nub of her case was that it was legitimate for politicians to use the first three levers as a way of giving effect to the values, the policies and the manifesto outcomes on which they had been elected, but that it was wrong for them to interfere or dictate on the curriculum. The curriculum should be left to school and professional practitioners.

Estelle went on to argue that if school leaders were going to enjoy greater curriculum autonomy then it was encumbent on them to be more rigorous about what worked and to develop a stronger research base to their practice – in line with how the medical profession works.

We need more of this grown-up dialogue between politicians and professionals about how policy development and implementation works in practice. Having said that I have some reservations about the argument Estelle has advanced.

First, the politicians have more levers in their toolkit than Estelle’s list suggests. Ministers are able, for example, to legislate and regulate (and have done so voluminously over the passed 20 years).

Funding is also a major lever – think how David Blunkett used the Standards Fund, the impact of Sports School Partnership funding, the behaviour changes that flowed from setting aside a modest amount of money for school travel plans, or how the coalition is using the Pupil Premium to set priorities and influence practice.

Another under-rated lever is what is sometimes called the power of the ‘bully pulpit’ – the ability of Ministers and the Prime Minister to use the power of elected office to set out a vision or champion a cause. Michael Gove’s advocacy of social mobility is a case in point.

But there is another flaw with Estelle’s argument. It is wrong to exclude school leaders from being able to influence how school structures, markets and accountability frameworks operate. There needs to be more interaction between policy makers and professionals about the design and implementation of these policy levers.

Dialogue on these issues will minimise the likelihood of gaming and creating perverse incentives as policy makers understand better how school and school leaders are likely to react to particular initiatives. There will be stronger ownership of policies among school leaders. And policy makers will be able to get a better balance on where and how to draw the line in being prescriptive about delivery of policy outcomes.

In this regard Estelle accepted that while the national literacy and numeracy strategies were valid as effective ways of addressing underlying problems, it had in retrospect been wrong to insist on them as the only way of improving literacy and numeracy standards.

If it is wrong to exclude school leaders from the first three domains, it is conversely also misguided to exclude politicians from the curriculum domain.

It seems to me legitimate for politicians to say that society values or the economy demands a particular emphasis or outcomes – and that this should be reflected in the curriculum for schools. However, the ‘how’ on delivering those outcomes can and should be left to schools – which can be assessed through the accountability framework.

So the whole interaction between politicians, policy makers and professionals is far messier than Estelle’s ideas might suppose. What is really needed if we are to avoid the constant and chopping of policy is a serious and sustained dialogue on the purpose and objectives of education in the 21st century.

If we could get some consensus on that, then the debate about the levers would take place in an entirely different context.

Robert Hill is chair of RSA Opening Minds

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