Practice to Policy

By Dr Lynne Sedgmore CBE, Executive Director

A common contention in the skills sector is the instability caused by rapid policy change. Sixty-one Secretaries of State in three decades is proof of that. That contention is intensified with each fresh wave of criticism that the sector has failed to respond swiftly enough to recent policy changes – most recently – Ofsted’s critical report on the progress of implementing Study Programmes.

Open policy-making holds a potential route out of that cycle, whereby slow or ‘inadequate’ implementation leads to yet more policy innovation and failed implementation. Enacting policy, as readers of this blog will know, is not an easy process. More policy does not equate to better policy.

The scope of what open policy making is remains somewhat fluid, and that is to its credit, as a key plank of the Civil Service Reform Plan, it was pitched as a way to allow Ministers to draw on a range of sources when seeking policy advice, using experts, the public, seeking broad and accurate evidence, whilst focussing on innovative mechanisms of communication and evaluation. Clearly these are welcome changes and they have found their way particularly well in to education policy.

Not only through well-known initiatives such as the Education Endowment Foundation’s Evidence and Data toolkit but more broadly into the culture of the sector itself. Initiatives, particularly at the school level such as ResearchEd, the Head Teachers Roundtable, as well as in the skills sector through campaigns such as have seen practitioners take the lead in shaping the future direction of the education sector.

This momentum has also come from policy makers as well as practitioners. The Importance of Teaching White Paper highlighted the need to move towards a ‘self-improving system’ and this mantle was taken up comprehensively in the work of David Hargreaves who saw a self-improving system as a combination of building the right structures; clusters of schools, developing the right culture; through local solutions, and including the right people; the leaders from within the system.

Again, it is difficult to find anything wrong with these initiatives. They aim to do what many in education, both in schools and the broader skills sector have been saying for a long time, reduce top-down governmental interference in education.

Yet, despite these initiatives and the positive messages coming out of not only the Cabinet Office, but from across Whitehall, in the skills sector, people still feel as if policy is being done to them.

This is a problem with many causes, partly it is a problem of communication and delivery; the implementation process, partly it is a problem in the way policy, even open policy, is conceived and partly it is the result of historical mistrust of changes often perceived by experienced practitioners as identical to those of previous administrations.

The 157 Group, with support from a number of organisations across the skills sector, will be focusing, through a number of events and activities over the coming year, on developing a range of strategies to further pry open, not only policy making, but the policy process, in order to deliver the improvements everyone working in the skills sector desires.

The first national workshop was held in January with participants attending from a range of organisations and Colleges, from senior managers of national organisations to College teaching staff. The aim of the initial event was to enquire by way of three strands and two phases. In the first phase we looked at how policy changes had impacted on practice at the delivery level and in the second we moved on to look at how those responses, how practice, could drive the policy of the future.

These enquiries were based around local planning, models of accountability and funding levels. In all three areas participants heard first from an external policy expert, which led on to discussions of their own experiences.

Those experiences were then used to pose questions for the second phase of the enquiry around, how different institutions had responded positively in a challenging policy context, as well as where they felt changes could be made to policy which would enable them to pursue a more positive and proactive agenda.

This was the first stage of the work of the project which will eventually allow the views of practitioners to form a key set of policy recommendations for the next government. But more than that, bringing practitioners together to contribute to the policy making (and policy enactment) process is not simply about responding to Government initiatives, nor simply about creating new policies. It is about the policy process from conception to delivery, in all its technicolour complexity.

The school sector in recent years has developed considerable policy influence from the grass-roots up, much of it through notable education bloggers. People like Andrew Old, Tom Sherrington, John Tomsnett, Alex Quigley, and in a more concerted fashion, the Heads Roundtable, have scrutinised government policy, held decision makers to account and have begun to formulate policy from the position of practitioners, rather than the other way around.

If open policy making, and this blog, can answer one question, a question policy makers in education should be asking themselves, it’s how can policy making best help practice and not simply how can we make better policies.

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Practice to Policy

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