Politicians' short-term focus is bad for education

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Politicians’ focus on short-term gain and ‘power’ means they will never drive genuine long-term improvements to education, says Pete Henshaw.

The findings of the OECD’s latest report, which bemoaned a lack of oversight of educational reforms in countries around the world, make for somewhat depressing reading. Our government’s response to this report only served to add to this feeling – as facts and “evidence” continue to be cherry-picked and spun. It is clear all eyes are on May’s General Election rather than long-term educational success.

The OECD’s report found that only around one in 10 of the 450 different reforms put in place across its member nations between 2008 and 2014 were evaluated for their impact by governments. Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director for education and skills, said: “Too many education reforms are failing to measure success or failure in the classroom. While it is encouraging to see a greater focus on outcomes, rather than simply increasing spending, it’s crucial that reforms are given the time to work and their impact is analysed.”

It is, when you really think about it, a staggering and depressing finding. But not surprising. It is a common problem that short-term politicians focus on short-term gain in their bid to retain what they disturbingly refer to as “power”.

In education particularly, this leads to an abandonment of all attempts to support (and evaluate) long-term success. Ultimately, it boils down to an increasing obsession with “quick-fixes” to structures and systems, rather than more substantive longer-term policies.

Politicians can control school structures. They can control educational systems. They cannot control, or bring influence to bear on, the things that really matter in education – the continued development of high-quality teaching and leadership.

These are what drive standards in education – but because pedagogy and educational theory is constantly evolving and changing, it is naturally an area for the profession to lead on.

The government could certainly support this work, but all too often this type of policy-making does not happen because it does not deliver the headline-grabbing, vote-winning, short-term results needed. It is just not sexy enough (not as sexy as a shiny new academy anyway) and so politicians are not interested.

So instead, we end up with lots of different types of school: City Technology Colleges, Free Schools, Trust Schools, Community Schools, Specialist Schools, Academy Schools, University Technical Colleges – the list goes on. And you know what – you can easily find “outstanding”, “good” and “inadequate” examples of all these types of school. Which tells us that it’s not school structure that counts – it’s what’s inside.

Speaking at the OECD’s Education Policy Outlook Conference last week, school reform minister Nick Gibb only emphasised this point. He also managed to illustrate the OECD’s concerns about the lack of proper “evaluation” of reforms.

The first policy Mr Gibb praised was the free school and academies programme (structures). He quoted Sweden’s friskola and the American charter schools as their inspiration. This is despite the fact that Sweden is reviewing its own free school programme after having dropped sharply in the PISA tables. 

Is there going to be an “evaluation” of our free schools? No – even though Mr Gibb’s “evidence” for their on-going success was restricted to three examples of specific schools.

After talking about the accountability reforms (systems), Mr Gibb quoted the extensive curriculum reforms (more systems). He acknowledged the fierce academic debate about knowledge vs transferable skills. So will our new curriculum be evaluated in the coming years? No. Mr Gibb assured us that the argument for transferable skills is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – well I am glad he’s finally cleared that up.

He quoted Shanghai’s domination of PISA as justification for the focus on knowledge and content. But we know that Shanghai’s success hides the fact that its school system excludes most so-called “migrant” students from families originally from outside the province. It’s just more statistical spin.

The fact is, all politicians of all hues are guilty of cherry-picking evidence to justify their policies and then spinning statistics and spouting selective case studies to try and prove the success of said policies. This is why the OECD’s call for proper evaluation of reforms will never be heeded – proper evaluation is just too dangerous for our politicians. Simple statistics and spin are safer – and get more headlines for that matter too.

And while this whole circus continues, teachers, academics and school leaders will continue to try and raise the bar when it comes to teaching, pedagogy and school leadership. We will continue to do this despite the evidence-light interference of politicians, their ever-increasing rhetoric, and the ever-changing landscape of school structures and systems.

       


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