What education (probably) needs: an Office for Educational Improvement

It was interesting to read Stephen Twigg’s comment piece in The Times last Tuesday, ‘We need facts about education, not opinions’. Writing in his capacity as Shadow Education Secretary, he argued that education policy in the UK needs to be based not on prevailing dogmas, but on evidence, and that a Labour Government would set up an office for education that was akin to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which was created after the last General Election by the Coalition Government to be an independent body that had as its main role to make economic forecasts and assessments of economic progress based on research that avoided the ‘spin’ factor so favoured by governments. An Office for Educational Improvement would, according to Mr Twigg, take responsibility for four main areas: ‘promoting high standards; spreading best practice; acting as a clearing house for research; and aiming to improve England’s position in international league tables’.

As with anything written by a politician on education, one has to approach this proposition positively, suspending one’s scepticism (or at least suppressing the question of why the Labour Party didn’t actually do this while in power – which was a period of time marked noticeably by educational policy based on opinions rather than research). Mr Twigg is quite right – education has suffered enormously over the past decades by being used as a political football. Education by its very nature is a long term project; with each child who is born, we enter into a social contract that has as its minimum a 20 year time span, whereas political contracts with the people last only 4 to 5 years (and often unilaterally change their terms during that period). Hundreds of thousands of children over the course of successive governments in recent years have suffered because the terms of their educational contracts have altered radically with changes in Parliament. What happened to assisted places, for instance, or to independent-state school partnerships? Politicians -at least, all the ones I have met – are well-meaning and usually passionate about education; it is just that there is a fundamental mismatch between the needs of education and of politics, and the more powerful, short-term, partner – politics – almost invariably wins, to the detriment of the education of young people each year.

So … an Office of Educational Improvement is a good idea; sitting independent of government, it would need to have a strong, firm remit, with a clear voice, but also with time and space to build up its body of research, and a clear understanding that its recommendations will grow and change with time as our body of research grows and changes. There is no magic bullet in education, and this body should not be expected to make grand final pronouncements, made with a flourish, which will provide ‘the’ answer to what we should be doing in our schools. The real truth of education is that each child is different, and we need to find a way to support and nurture her or his potential; any Office of Educational Improvement will need to recognise this. Importantly, while this new Office would need to be in the public eye and accountable to the public, and must especially be responsive and open to the thoughts, ideas and experiences of practitioners and leaders in education, it must build up an inner strength that allows it not to be swayed by public opinion, or political pressure. If it succumbs to either of these, it will fail, and our hopes for a de-politicised educational system, free from amateurish interference, will fail with it.

We should not underestimate this challenge. For a body to resist the attraction of making ‘flash in the pan’ gestures, to determine to stand alone, and yet still be permeable enough to remain open to all excellent practice, both nationally and internationally, picking apart what might have longevity and transferability … this will not be easy. But there is a real opportunity here for us to invest in education, to commit to it as a long-term project, and to develop – and carry through – a far greater, deeper wisdom in this area, which will benefit us all.

And yet … doubt remains. Why is this only ‘probably’ a good idea …? The crunch, of course, will come when the Office does not say or do what the Government of the time would like it to say or do. That will be its defining moment, and it will fail or succeed depending on who wins that battle. As educationalists, our hopes should be pinned on its success … let us see if we can genuinely commit to independence in educational research and thought in this country. An opportunity awaits us.

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