Why don’t the government “do the right thing”? The role of values in education policymaking
21st January 2021
Last December, TeacherTapp asked its users to react to the following statement:
“Now is the time to rethink the purpose of education and to change the system for the better”
I’m not sure how I would have responded. 2020 provided quite enough “change” for me and the thought of “rethinking” anything other than my position on the sofa seemed a tall order over Christmas. Further, in the current climate, as teachers work tirelessly to adapt to remote learning, it’s easy to see future talk as an unnecessary indulgence. At points, the challenges of the past year have seemed a good advert for the ‘old normal’, rather than a case for the ‘new’. However, I still feel there is a place for ‘the future’ in education, provided such discussions are tempered by realism and grounded in schools’ everyday practice. More broadly, I think an honest conversation about values is an essential part of a productive education policy debate.
On 6th January, Radio 4 broadcast a thoughtful discussion on the future of education, as part of the Rethink Fairness series. Amol Rajan, BBC Media Editor, brought together a group of teachers and academics for a wide-range ranging conversation, spanning exams, regional attitudes to education, international league tables and responses to the pandemic. It was refreshing to hear a discussion about the future of education that avoided nebulous concepts divorced from teaching and instead centred on tangible, incremental improvements to the sector.
Much of the evidence cited in the programme (PISA, advantage gaps, progress measures) will be familiar to those working in education, but what struck me was how effectively each contributor appealed to values in their arguments. Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University, and Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School, shared a desire for comprehensive education to give all students access to the “best that has been thought and said”. Sammy Wright, vice-principal of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, wanted his students to engage with a canon of knowledge, whilst also developing an understanding of the North East, to foster a sense of “pride in their culture and (…) where they’re from”. These judgements are not just grounded in evidence of ‘what works’ but convictions about what they believe is desirable for young people and society at large.
In this blog, I reflect on the role of values in education policy. I argue that to make a meaningful contribution to the education debate, we must tap into what different politicians value. For CfEY, as a ‘think-and-action tank’, this means doing more than explaining our research findings. In combining rigorous evidence with an appeal to values, we can push education up the political agenda and champion evidence-informed policymaking.In combining rigorous evidence with an appeal to values, we can push education up the political agenda and champion evidence-informed policymaking Click To Tweet
Combining evidence and values, capturing the attention of policymakers
Discussions about the future of education raise difficult questions. As a society, what criteria should we use to determine what young people learn? Usefulness in the workplace? Perceived relevance to young people’s lives? The best that has been thought and said? We must then consider what forms of education the government should fund, the age at which compulsory schooling should end, and the extent to which the state should dictate on what material should be taught. Whilst we can look at research and evidence to add weight to our arguments, answers to these policy questions will always rest on some form of value judgement.
This is not to argue that evidence isn’t important. As a researcher, I continue to be bowled over by teachers’ efforts to put evidence into practice and transform their profession from the ground-up; the growth of teacher-led research communities has been one of the most welcome educational developments of recent years. I also recognise the vital work of the Education Endowment Foundation in synthesising evidence to inform classroom practice. However, when championing evidence-informed policy, we must also remember that, for politicians, schooling may be one part of a diverse brief. Before making evidence-informed arguments, we first need to capture the attention of policymakers, who can catalyse the changes we want to see. As Jonathan Simons argued at a recent roundtable chaired by CfEY Chief Executive, Loic Menzies, “politicians are political”, and there is little point calling for the government to “do the right thing” when they disagree with you on what the “right thing” is. To promote evidence-informed means, we first need our audience to buy into the ends.
Evidence and values both play a role in the education debate. In the next section, I reflect on my introduction to E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and the argument that acquisition of knowledge is a central purpose of education. I recall how an appeal to values initially attracted me to this position before engagement with research and evidence developed my outlook. In retrospect, this account demonstrates how an appeal to values may push politicians to engage with new ideas and their underlying evidence.Before making evidence-informed arguments, we first need to capture the attention of policymakers, who can catalyse the changes we want to see Click To Tweet
Why Hirsch Matters: an appeal to values
The first time I encountered the work of Hirsch was at a talk given by a former teacher and policy advisor. The speaker made the case for a well-sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum, before presenting Hirsch’s argument that shared knowledge supports democratic participation. He also explained how professional communities could help teachers develop their subject knowledge and share their expertise.
The talk transformed my educational outlook. I was not seduced by Randomised Control Trials and effect sizes. Instead, what attracted me was the talk’s social, cultural and political promise: knowledge as an entitlement for all young people, with common reference points creating a more democratic, understanding society. Education was no longer a solely mercantile, economic endeavour; a form of capital to be exchanged in the labour market. It was a way of taking young people beyond their immediate experience, of seeing the world differently. Compelled by this value-laden vision, I then examined the substantial evidence that underpins it: the efficacy of explicitly taught phonics, the importance of knowledge to reading comprehension, the astonishing findings of the unfortunately titled ‘Project Follow-Through’.Education was no longer a solely mercantile, economic endeavour; a form of capital to be exchanged in the labour market. It was a way of taking young people beyond their immediate experience, of seeing the world differently. Click To Tweet
A few years have passed since and my position has inevitably shifted. I’m still broadly aligned with Hirsch, though I do see difficulties in applying a secular conception of ‘cultural literacy’ to nations with vastly different histories and traditions. There are also challenging questions about what knowledge young people should acquire, who determines this and what constitutes a ‘canon’. Michael Merrick’s excellent ‘Curriculum and Power’ explores some of these issues at greater depth.
The point here is that it was not research evidence that initially sparked my interest and investment in Hirsch. It was the values that underpin his thinking. If we are to engage politicians and others outside the education sector, we should lead with values, before weaving evidence into our arguments.
Making a case in education
Evidence is crucial but sometimes it is not enough. As much as I often cringe when I hear calls to “rethink the purpose of education”, it is important for us to be candid about what it is we are trying to achieve. Those seeking to champion Hirsch’s vision among the left might emphasise the egalitarian values underpinning a knowledge-rich curriculum: of shared knowledge as an entitlement for all young people. Speaking to conservatives, they could appeal to Edmund Burke’s view of society as a partnership between the living, the dead and those yet to be born, with knowledge a way of ensuring a degree of inter-generational continuity. These arguments for the primacy of knowledge are value-laden, they do not hold p-values.
Of course, there must be a balance. Excessive navel-gazing is not going to help fire-fighting senior leaders navigate partial re-openings, burst bubbles and remote learning. On the other hand, attending to values may help politicians appreciate the consequences of policy (in)actions and why they matter. This government’s mishandling of guidance to schools suggests a lack of regard for the teaching profession but also the wider societal functions that schools play. An appeal to values may yield more productive conversations about what should sit within and outside schools’ remit, and the limits to what senior leaders should be held responsible for.Everyone feels they have skin in the educational game, which is both a blessing and a curse Click To Tweet
Everyone feels they have skin in the educational game, which is both a blessing and a curse. It means policymakers should require little persuasion regarding schools’ importance but may need a nudge to get them beyond personal anecdote and narrow talking points.
When making a case in education, we need to meet our audience where they are, to understand and appreciate their concerns, and to persuade them in their terms. To do so, we need a policy platform that is both evidence-informed and clear about its values.