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How can we decouple education policy from the electoral cycle?

Yesterday I was speaking with a lobbyist about Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). A green paper was published earlier this year - the first step of many in creating new legislation. We talked about the fact that the next election is a maximum of two years away, and we wondered whether that would be enough time to get any new legislation onto the statute books.

This prompted me to return to a question I have pondered many times in recent years. The fact that education policy so dependent on the short-termist thinking of the electoral cycle is absolutely ridiculous. There are too many people adversely affected by this limitation on our ability to create and maintain sensible policy to allow it to continue indefinitely.

As I say, I'm not new to this idea. Ten years ago, my first foray into writing about education was to pen an anonymous 'Secret teacher' column for the Guardian. It was called Let's free education from political control, and I proposed a rather naive way of doing this:

How about this: with a teaching qualification comes the right to vote for the, not education secretary, let's call it head of the profession for now. These voting rights could be extended to others with relevant credentials – academics, high level teaching assistants, whoever. Every five years there's a series of elections, carried out in schools, to decide who's going to be head of the profession for the next five years. There could be one election a month over four months, starting with choosing a school representative, then at the local authority level, then at the regional level, and finally at the national level. That person can serve two terms in public office if they get re-elected – having the opportunity to set in place a 10-year plan – and then they must return to the profession, or move on.

I'm glad to report that my thinking has moved on a little in the last ten years, but my conviction that we need to decouple education policy from the electoral cycle has only intensified.

And I am not alone. Indeed, the same message has been coming from all quarters of late.

For example, in their excellent book About Our Schools (2022), Sir Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters discussed the urgent need to 'restrain the powers of the secretary of state' - powers that have intensified to an unhealthy degree in recent years. To do this, they proposed the establishment of a multidisciplinary 'Schooling Framework Commission' that would be charged with 'producing an initial and evolving 10-year plan for education'. Mick and Tim suggest that this Commission:

would have a membership that included representatives of teacher and support staff unions, HMI, Chartered College of Teaching, universities, CBI, Chambers of Commerce, Trades Union Congress, governors and MAT trust boards, Local Government Association and bodies representing churches, faiths and charities, together with politicians nominated from the main political parties and an additional membership by public election.

In a similar vein, earlier this year the Times Education Commission published a 12-point plan for education, in which point 12 is that:

There should be a 15-year strategy for education, drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, cultural figures, local politicians and civic leaders to determine what the nation needs rather than what is in one party’s short-term political interest. Just as the NHS 10-year plan allows the health service to take strategic decisions, so a 15-year plan for education would give sufficient time for reform to bed in and cover the full cycle of a single cohort of pupils from four to nineteen... In Estonia, the best education system in Europe, the 15-year plan to 2035, which was agreed by all parties, is seen as crucial to the country’s success.

And the Foundation for Educational Development (FED), an organisation 'dedicated to promoting a long-term vision and plan for education in England', also propose that education policy 'should be long-term, predicated on evidence and have cross-sector and cross-party buy in'.

Problems with what is being proposed currently

  1. I think we can dismiss my 'secret teacher' proposal to free education from political control completely. How we educate current and future generations is about as political as things get, and it's a bit silly to suggest that we should 'free education' from the political process entirely.

  2. The list of people being included in these proposed bodies is often a list of 'experts' - business leaders, scientists, cultural figures etc. It's a good idea to have such people in the mix. But you also need ordinary people to feed in to the process - the people whose lives are directly affected by the policy proposal. Alongside experts, you also need people who are looking at the problem through fresh eyes. And what you really need is people who are willing to as the 'stupid questions'. Because when someone says 'Can I ask a stupid question?', what they often really mean is 'Is it just me, or is this a terrible idea?'

  3. Although it would be preferable to what we have currently, I'm not convinced that having a 'long-term plan for education' really works as an idea, because education is not a single thing - it's an absolutely massive thing that's made up of loads of other things - buildings and people and ideas and knowledge and theories and research and so on.

So, instead of creating a 'long-term plan for education' designed by pillars of society, I think we need a set of plans - plural - looking at different aspects of education policy in parallel, each overseen by a rich mix of different types of people relevant to a particular policy area. Off the top of my head, here's a list of some (or probably most) of the things we need separate (but interconnected) plans for:

  1. Primary curriculum

  2. Secondary curriculum

  3. Assessment

  4. Pedagogy

  5. Behaviour and relationships

  6. Mental health support (for pupils, teachers and support staff)

  7. Attendance

  8. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

  9. The Early Years Foundation Stage

  10. School types / structures

  11. Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

  12. Ofsted / accountability

  13. Independent schools

  14. Recruitment / retention

  15. 14-19: routes into employment

  16. Further education

  17. Higher education

  18. Adult education

  19. Technical and vocational education

  20. Homeschooling

  21. Alternative education providers

  22. Climate change & how to prepare kids for a climate changed world

  23. Funding models

Some of these - like curriculum, assessment and school types/structures - lend themselves to a 15-year plan. But other areas - things like mental health support, SEND and attendance - are in need of urgent action, alongside ongoing monitoring and evaluation.

A proposal: Vertical Slice Policy Teams

In recent years, I've become increasingly obsessed with implementation science - the study of how to bring about lasting, positive change in real-world contexts. To date, implementation science has mainly focused on healthcare, but increasingly these ideas are now being translated to education. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation has published 'A school's guide to implementation', and I recently created an Implementation Science for Schools programme designed to help increase the proportion of school improvement initiatives that actually bring about lasting, positive change (which is not many, currently).

One of the most powerful ideas for how to implement change effectively is to use a vertical slice team (VST). In a VST, instead of implementing change in a top-down way, which is what usually happens, you take a cross-section through an organisation and assemble a team comprising representatives of all the different types of people affected by a given policy initiative. You then go through a process of planning - and then executing - a comprehensive implementation plan, often over say a 3 to 5-year period.

It's important to understand that this is not just a consultation exercise. The VST essentially becomes the executive, tasked with overseeing a particular school improvement initiatives. For example, in a school looking to improve its feedback policy, the VST might include:

  • A senior leader with responsibility for teaching and learning

  • A middle leader

  • An early career teacher

  • An experienced teacher

  • The Special/Additional Educational Needs and Disabilities Co-ordinator (SENDCo)

  • Teaching Assistants / Learning Support Assistants

  • Pupil representatives

As I have discovered over the last four years or so, implementing change with a VST is incredibly effective because a) you combat groupthink and create much better policy, and b) you bring the rest of the community with you, freeing up untold reserves of agency, problem-solving capacity and goodwill.

To return to the question of how to decouple education policy from the short-termist thinking of electoral politics, here's how I see an alternative to the current system working:

  1. Create a cross-party group of politicians to oversee education policy, along the lines of a select committee. Select committees usually have around 12 people in them - this would be fine.

  2. Each member is responsible for creating and implementing policy in one or two of the policy areas listed above. To do this, they each assemble a Vertical Slice Team to help them create and execute policy in their area. For example, the member with responsibility for mental health might assemble a vertical slice team including: - A headteacher / senior leader - A middle leader - An early career teacher - An experienced teacher (NB: the teachers should cover a range of ages) - Young people who have struggled with mental health issues - Teachers / support staff who have struggled with mental health issues - A child psychologist - An educational psychologist - An academic with experience in this area - A representative from Children & and Young People's Mental Health Service (CYPMHS) - Two education researchers (more on this below)

  3. Each vertical slice team would devise a 'complex intervention' - an intervention with many moving parts - to improve outcomes in their area. For example, a VST looking at SEND might create a complex intervention with the following key elements: - Train teachers and support staff on early diagnosis and intervention - Improve the quality and consistency of screening and reporting - Create a digital platform for Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) - Require schools to ring-fence SEND funding to ensure that it is spent as intended - Improve access to mental health support for all young people with SEND - Provide support to local authorities to improve consistency of practice And so on. This is not intended to be a comprehensive plan for how to improve SEND provision - it's just to illustrate the point about creating a 'complex intervention'.

  4. Monitoring and evaluation. A key aspect of implementation is that you need to expect the unexpected - reality bites even the most elegant of plans - and you need to adapt your plans accordingly as the data comes in. For this reason, a key function of each VST will be to collect and analyse data on each aspect of the complex intervention - hence the education researchers. As the data comes in, the team holds regular 'pivot or persevere' meetings to decide whether to stick to the plan relating too each element of the complex intervention, or pivot to something else. (And to be clear, to 'pivot' does not necessarily mean to do something completely different. There are many different types of pivots - zoom in, zoom out, switch to a different demographic sub-group and so on).

In this way, rather than creating a monolithic '15-year plan for education', we can create an agile policy ecosystem that reflects the complexity of the educational ecosystem it seeks to improve.

There's a lot more to implementation science than I have been able to convey in this blog post. But hopefully this conveys some sense of the direction we might fruitfully go in.

Having said that, this is very much a work-in-progress. I do not claim to have all the answers, and I welcome any criticism of these ideas. If you would like to join a conversation about how vertical slice politics might work in practice, you can do so on the 'Vertical Slice Politics' community forum, here:

You might also be interested in my TEDx talk, which came out this week, which explores the rationale for 'vertical slice politics' in more detail.

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