Alan Smithers: When will they stop pulling ideas out of hats?

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The Independent Online

How is it that our education policy has become so odd? What could be more absurd, for example, than an access watchdog with powers to punish universities for not reaching targets that do not exist? Perhaps a secondary education system based on specialist schools that are praised for not bothering to identify whether pupils have the talent for those specialisms. Or what about the money takeaway that was individual learning accounts?

How is it that our education policy has become so odd? What could be more absurd, for example, than an access watchdog with powers to punish universities for not reaching targets that do not exist? Perhaps a secondary education system based on specialist schools that are praised for not bothering to identify whether pupils have the talent for those specialisms. Or what about the money takeaway that was individual learning accounts?

Politicians are far from stupid. Most I encounter are a lot sharper and more focused than your typical academic. These grotesqueries cannot in the main be put down to their personal failings. A more likely explanation is the nature of the political process.

Education policy used to be low profile. Central government contented itself with establishing the legislative framework and allowed local authorities and schools to get on with it. The Thatcher governments tried to cut out the local authorities and left something of a vacuum. New Labour has attempted to fill it by taking over the management of the system.

Politicians are in no position to micromanage education. Their central task is different and their time too short. With an election every four years or so, they have to be thinking of votes all the time. Ministers have much less than a single parliament to prove themselves. They are desperate to be seen to make a difference. But, as managers, they cannot afford the luxury of carefully thought out changes whose benefits take time to show through.

Ministers have, therefore, taken to surrounding themselves with advisers to dream up clever wheezes to give the appearance of tackling perceived problems. Idea after idea comes tumbling out, often from those with little feeling for education, and is seized upon for a headline.

Hence, instead of fundamental structural reform to a higher education which has lost direction and purpose, we get a sop to counter some supposed Brideshead bias. A secondary education system which needs to be shaped to provide opportunities for all pupils has to make do with diversity for diversity's sake. Gimmicky individual learning accounts are rushed out for their publicity value without regard for the training system or human nature.

But there is another factor. Educational evidence is in a weak position in relation to political power, even when it is relatively clear cut. Studies of university admissions, for example, have shown that students from manual backgrounds are more likely to be admitted even though their qualifications are poorer. The root of educational unfairness lies elsewhere – but because of the wish to posit universities as the problem that evidence is brushed aside.

There are some who see the way through the present education policy morass as adopting the evidence-based approach of medicine. They argue that carrying out the equivalent of, for example, randomised drug trials would place education on firmer ground when it came to deciding between different forms of school organisation, teaching methods and curricula. But, while superficially attractive, there are some major ethical and practical problems in randomly assigning pupils to different forms of education. There also has to be considerable doubt as to whether it would work in education, which is more social interaction than mechanism.

Better evidence would increase the chances of better policy. But at best it would only be a sounding board for the political process. It would not radically alter it. This has to come from the politicians themselves. Is it too much to hope that as the consequences of recent excesses hit home – the bad publicity from not meeting targets, teachers leaving in droves because of "initiative overload", the evident waste of money in hare-brained schemes – they will once more come to see the virtues of standing back to take a considered overview? There would be more scope to think long-term if someone else were taking the flak short-term. Can there be a better political reason for leaving the running of education to the professionals?

The writer is the Sydney Jones Professor and Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool

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