Why the politicians are slowly losing their power


We should take with a pinch of salt politicians’ claims that their policies can change education. Professor Chris Husbands on a shifting balance of power.

As I sit down to write this piece, the General Election is just 100 days away. A lot can happen in 100 days: it was the time between Napoleon’s return from exile on Elba through to his defeat at Waterloo exactly 200 years ago, and it was the whirlwind period of action in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the New Deal which addressed America’s Great Depression. 

And this is a General Election like no other: whatever the outcome, long-held assumptions have to be rewritten: not since the 1950s has a governing party increased its Commons representation; no Labour opposition has returned to majority power after just one term; no Parliament has been hung twice in succession. 

Something will have to give in the election of 2015: no-one is sure what it will be and political and policy gossip plays with any number of possible outcomes.

Into this uncertainty pours speculation about education policy. Since the Academies Act 2010, the coalition government has upturned the structures of English education, with far-reaching reforms to assessment, curriculum, funding, accountability, vocational education and higher education. Both universities and schools are far more autonomous – albeit being equally constrained by greater exposure to quasi-market pressures. 

Moreover, the public and policy debate around education policy has also fractured and become much noisier. It has become global. Debates about the quality of education in England are now routinely considered, often through the lens of PISA and the OECD, in the context of (a phrase one almost never heard a decade ago) “education system performance” globally. Into the territory staked out by Andreas Schleicher and the OECD now march the Gates Foundation, the Pearson think-tank, the Grattan Institute and the Varkey Foundation: globalising thinking about education policy.

And the debate has become more populous. Often driven by the Twitterati and the blogosphere, the range of voices has become wider, more fractious, more quarrelsome. If tweets and blogs make everyone a policy think-tank, they also privilege the eccentric and the individual. No policy idea can be floated now without instant condemnation from somewhere on the web. Two quite different examples make the point – one from outside education, one from inside. 

Emily Thornberry famously tweeted her photograph of an English flag bedecking a house during the Rochester by-election, was roundly condemned, and sacked about 12 hours later. But the micro-details matter: she posted her tweet at 3:11pm. The first tweet describing her as a “snob” was posted just two minutes later.

And a second example. For a quarter of a century, Ofsted has been inspecting English schools against published frameworks, and teachers have grumbled about it. It was Twitter which drew out sharp criticisms of Ofsted’s approach to judging the quality of schools based on judgements about individual lessons, and Ofsted which chose (perhaps wrongly) to meet its Twitter critics (photographs of the meeting posted on Twitter, naturally) before, coincidentally or not, revising the practice of 20 or more years.

Over the next 100 days we are to be treated to a curious fiction: politicians will persuade us that their policies can shape education. 

They will debate the level of university fees for students, the importance of different qualification measures, their views on the curriculum, the importance of “character” and “grit”. They will set out their personal visions for education. 

But power is relentlessly draining away. It is draining away upwards (if things can drain upwards) to international and inter-governmental organisations, and downwards to noisy interest groups and think-tanks. 

This isn’t new: it’s been observed in political science circles for a decade and a half; it’s now arrived in education. You can see the trends all over education: the increased influence of global league tables and benchmarking, the arrival of international capital to the education market in England, and the increasing activity of UK universities and schools in international markets at one end, and the fracturing squabble of the internet at the other as those who believe in (say) a knowledge-led curriculum or (say) the importance of “grit” and resilience find others who share their views and make common causes in their schools and classrooms. Power moving upwards and downwards, away from politicians.

This doesn’t mean that the national policy levers are wholly unimportant, but it does mean that we should take with a large pinch of salt politicians’ claims to have the policy shift which will change education – whether it is the Pupil Premium, a new qualification framework or a new curriculum. More thoughtful politicians – and perhaps that is too much of an oxymoron in a noisy election campaign – will understand that the new world demands a new approach: making alliances, building longer-term frameworks in which autonomous, globally networked systems can operate. 

The world is moving faster than the ability of politicians to shape it; and they don’t quite realise it yet.

  • Professor Chris Husbands is director of the UCL Institute of Education, London.


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