Labour’s new approach to education: ‘Evidence, evidence, evidence’. What can the Lib Dems learn from this?

I’m going to do something now I haven’t had cause to do in a good few months: praise a Labour policy. Here’s why.

On Tuesday night, I went along to listen to Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow education secretary, deliver a speech to a ProgressOnline debate on raising standards in education. (The event was in parliament’s Grimond Room, so I felt reasonably at home.) The theme was ‘Evidence, not dogma’, and Mr Twigg stayed true to the spirit of it, announcing a heavily-trailed proposal that Labour will establish an Office for Educational Improvement. You can read his speech here, and here’s an excerpt:

… instead of looking back to a halcyon age that never existed, we need to understand how we reform the whole of our system, rather than focussing on limited clusters of interventions. Too often education reform has been based on the fashions of the day rather than on solid data.

To address this challenge, I am announcing today that a Labour Government would create an ‘Office for Educational Improvement’, independent of ministers, along the lines of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. The Office would focus on four major areas: promoting high standards; spreading best practice; acting as a clearing house for research; and aiming to improve England’s position compared to other countries.

The Office would act as the authority on evidence in education policy, including on the relationship between education and social mobility. … I do not see this as being just another quango. Rather I want to involve people who have experience of the front line. A head teacher who has experience of getting poorer kids into university, for example.

Labour will take political dogma out of the education system and put evidence at its heart. So, ask me my three priorities in education, and I would say “evidence, evidence, evidence.”

Three things that strike me about Stephen Twigg’s speech

First, it’s smart politics, triangulating neatly the stereotypical polar divides in the educational debate. As Stephen Twigg put it: “There are lots of Labour voters who believe in rigorous examinations and proper discipline, just as there are lots of Conservative voters who believe in vocational subjects and helping the poorest pupils.” (Anyone else hear echoes of Barack Obama’s famous 2004 speech to the Democratic convention, ‘there aren’t blue states or red states, only the United States’?)

Secondly, it’s the correct approach. Ever since James Callaghan’s famous Ruskin speech in 1976 — when the ‘secret garden’ of education policy was first trampled by politicians — there has been more and more Whitehall intervention. Most of it has been based on personal hunch and political whim.

Take the current belief in the highest echelons that school uniforms boost children’s attainment: there is no robust evidence to suggest that’s the case. But it’s not just Whitehall that’s fallible. There are plenty of teachers and schools which believe hiring teaching assistants is the best use of resources — yet the evidence to date, both in the UK and abroad, shows little benefit to the children, and that in fact poorer children can be negatively affected. Yet the UK spends more than £2 billion a year on teaching assistants.

Thirdly, and a little off-topic, I wondered what might have become of Stephen Twigg’s political career if he hadn’t lost his Enfield Southgate seat in 2005? (He returned in 2010 as MP for the safer berth of Liverpool West Derby). At that time he’d just succeeded David Miliband as schools minister, and would, I imagine, have been promoted to the cabinet in the following parliament, becoming a key player in the Labour leadership stakes.

The challenge for the Lib Dems

Stephen Twigg’s intervention poses an interesting challenge to the Lib Dems.

All three parties have, over the past decade, begun to converge on similar educational policy terrain when it comes to school structures, most notably giving greater rights to parents, and freeing schools from LEA control. As a result, the political debate has tended to contrive areas of micro-disagreement, with politicians muscling in on the areas they’re least qualified to pronounce on, such as the shape of the curriculum and pedagogy (eg, phonics).

Since Nick Clegg’s election as Lib Dem leader, the party’s most distinctive education policy has become the ‘pupil premium’, championed by Lib Dem schools minister Sarah Teather. This is new money targeted at the poorest pupils, recognising that this disadvantaged group will encounter the biggest educational challenges.

If the policy had been developed by Labour, you could guarantee it would’ve been tightly ring-fenced to ensure there was a measurable output statistic that could burnish Gordon Brown’s conference speech. The Lib Dems, courageously, have said this money is not to be centrally directed: schools are free to spend it on those measures they think will boost the attainment levels of the poorest children in their specific context.

Which is great liberal theory — but, as we’ve seen above, existing resources are not always well-spent so there is a good chance these additional resources might also miss the mark. How will the government — how will we as taxpayers — know if the ‘pupil premium’ has actually improved the educational life chances of the most disadvantaged; or will it simply have been absorbed into the general school budget to mop up pay-inflation increases, or repair the faulty boiler? There is, therefore, a need for accountability, for us as a party to be able to demonstrate to the public that the £1.25 billion of ‘pupil premium’ money we’re spending next year has made a difference.

However, there is another level of accountability needed also: democratic accountability. Freeing schools from local authority control has diminished the role of LEAs as a ‘mediating layer’ able to promote and share best teaching practice within and between local schools. It is this vacuum which Stephen Twigg’s Office for Educational Improvement would, in part, fill. But the diminution of LEAs has also left no way for local people — past and future parents, local employers — to have a say in what they want from the schools serving their communities, paid for by their taxes. Perhaps we as a party believe the local community no longer has a role to play. If we believe it does, though, we need to start thinking through what that might look like.

Conclusion

At Tuesday night’s event, I spoke from the floor to welcome Stephen Twigg’s contribution to the education debate. ‘Evidence-based policy’ is a concept rational-secularists within the Lib Dems are quite comfortable with — at least when it concerns policies relating to science, health and drugs.

It is more of a challenge within the context of education, where everyone (intentionally or not) brings their personal prejudices based on their own school experiences, whether as a pupil, teacher or parent/carer, of what works. It is even more of a challenge for politicians, always on the look out for the ‘magic bullet’, with an affordable price-tag, guaranteed to be ready in time for the next manifesto. But that’s simply not how social policy works.

Of course education will continue to be a subject of hot political contention. There are big issues — for example, relating to the level of funding, the relative importance of the primary/secondary/tertiary sectors, the skills needed for a thriving economy — where politicians can and should make clear their goals. But there are also issues where we need to respect the evidence, however inconvenient, and support the teaching profession to do a good job without constant interference from politicians.

(Full disclosue: I work for a major grant-making charity, the Education Endowment Foundation, which funds evidence-based initiatives in schools aiming to raise attainment standards among the poorest children.)

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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20 Comments

  • Excellent article. I think the problem of by-passing LEAs could be brought into focus by an OEI. Have to say, Twigg’s idea is an excellent one.

  • Labour claiming to use evidence to back policy in education is nothing new. When I was at University and the Labour Government introduced tuition fees, a Labour activist – now a a Labour MP – explained to me that this was an evidence based decision – basically it had been determined that the way to make society more equal was to spend more on very young children and less on young adults. The problem is that we are not talking about some phenomenon like gravity, where anyone can observe an apple falling to the ground. We are often talking about policy and social sciencies, where evidence can be found to back up any assertion. Now – all these years later – those pre-primary school children are approaching University age. Was Labour’s evidence backed policy change to introduce fees at tertiary level and divert funding into primary education successful in making our society more equal? Did it improve educational outcomes? I don’t claim to know the answers but I’m quite sure that you’d get different answers depending what evidence you considered.

  • Excellent piece

  • Using evidence to shape policy = good all should applaud

    Twisting evidence to shape policy or generate opposition = bad but what all parties have demonstrated a knack of doing.

    In general I think Labour did some good in education, and personally I have seen this at the Primary / Junior levels. My 20 year old son began school in appalling conditions as did his cousins living in other parts of the country. My daughter who is almost 8 has had better facilities, smaller classes and a better all round start in education.

  • Twigg was asked on Radio 4 what he would do if evidence was in favour of academic selection in schools. He evaded the question. I hope he takes the trouble to read the independent research from the Button Trust that shows that some comprehensive schools are far more socially selective than state grammars, and that social mobility would be improved by opening entrance to top independent schools to merit by means tested bursaries.

    But I doubt it somehow; he will be selective over which evidence he chooses to follow.

  • Stephen Tall 23rd Feb '12 - 7:31pm

    @ Daisy Christodoulou

    Two quick responses:

    1) The remit of the independent Office for Education Improvement would need to be drawn up carefully. For example, the evidence it promoted would need to be robust (eg, peer-reviewed research and/or randomised control trials) to ensure credibility.

    2) Re your criticisms of Twigg – surely the point of an independent Office would be that they could and would call out ministers if they made claims not backed up by evidence. At the moment there’s no organisation with the clout to be able to challenge politicians’ personal pet peeves/plans.

  • Ruth Bright 23rd Feb '12 - 7:53pm

    It’s very interesting that you’ve raised this Stephen, especially as you have professional expertise in this area. The question of the pupil premium money being spent on the school boiler or the like seems all too possible when you look at the criteria: “The grant may be spent by maintained schools for the purposes of the school; that is to say for the educational benefit of pupils registered at that school, or for the benefit of pupils registered at other maintained schools; and on community facilities ie services whose provision furthers any charitable purpose for the benefit of pupils at the school or their families, or people who live or work in the locality in which the school is situated”.

  • I am inclined to welcome this with open arms. But it important not to use it for purposes purely of enhancing academic achievement. I recently watched invited witnesses to the Home Affairs Select Committee be absolutely scathing about government’s failure to make PHSE compulsory and continued use of drugs education which has no impact or makes the situation worse.

    Health, social and well-being outcomes have to be studied alongside academic outcomes if kids are going to benefit optimally from their school experience and be as set up as they can be for a successful life.

  • Ive been trying to post this on Twigg’s site, unsuccessfully. Perhaps one of the Labour stooges could make him aware 🙂

    On the face of it, Twigg’s speech is to be welcomed. Yet he is already guilty of following the dogma he purports to decry. He takes the opportunity of knocking the very few remaining state grammar schools as socially exclusive based solely on the evidence of free school meals. Yet even are we to accept this measure, independent peer-reviewed research from Durham University shows that the most socially exclusive state schools are not academically selective, but theoretically open-to-all comprehensives. http://www.suttontrust.com/research/evidence-on-the-effects-of-selective-educational-systems/

    He worries about Competition from China and south Korea; these countries have selective schooling. No-one disputes that universities should be meritocraticly selective, yet there is a blind spot about selection in schools.

    Britain already has hundreds of excellent, high performing schools but unfortunately entry to them is based not on academic ability, but ability to pay – fees, or high house prices. Yet further research and a pilot scheme from the Sutton Trust shows how this could be changed: http://www.suttontrust.com/research/educational-apartheid-a-practical-way-forward/ and http://www.suttontrust.com/research/five-years-on/

    I hope Mr Twigg comes on here to respond. However, given his response on Radio 4 to the question of what he would do were independent research to show that academic selection should be reintroduced, I fear that he is as dogmatic as all others in this matter.

  • Sid Cumberland 24th Feb '12 - 11:46am

    About time we had some evidence in our education system. Is it not bizarre that some schools can (in practice) opt not to teach children to read properly?

  • Sid – the evidence is in what comes out at the end. Not that this is all to do with the schools, however – parenting plays a large part in it.

  • Liberal Eye – I think you’ve made a really good comment there: “The whole point about people – teachers and students alike – is that they are individuals and cannot be summarised in a govt spreadsheet.”

    And that’s the nub of the issue as I see it. For some people, academically-selective schooling is the best option. Yet it is, as you say, “verboten” – even the Tories won’t propose it as an option (save keeping those accidents of history where it survives).

    The difficulty as I see it is this. If you want mixed-ability, all shall have prizes, lowest common denominator schools you can take your pick. Plenty of choice there. If you want high disciplinary standards, rigorous academics, competitive sport, appreciation of achievement, and for pupils to be called pupils, you’re stuck. Not offered in the state system.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Feb '12 - 8:53pm

    The problem all along seems to be that the government sets up measuring systems, with punishments for missing the correct measurements, with the consequence that public servants put all their effort into whatever it is that passes the measuring system while paying no attention to what it was set up to try and measure. I was talking to some doctors the other day, and they were telling me about how the impostion of penalties for more than four hours wait in A&E had led to all sorts of fake mechanisms to keep the measured waiting time down. It’s similar to what is often seen in education when poor quality teaching and poor quality exams results in students putting all their effort into “exam technique” – that is, ways of passing the exam without really knowing the material. The bane of my life as a university lecturer is the student who is forever asking questions about the exact marking system for some exercise and the exact contribution it gives to the final mark – but never asks any questions about the material itself.

    New Labour seemed forever to be doing this, part of the problem being that most of them had little grasp of statistics so were easily impressed by dubious arguments that waved a few bar charts at them. The result unfortunately is that even if there is something good in Twigg’s idea, it comes across as just more of the same – a collection of hand-picked bureaucrats at the top (experts at devising questions which lead to the answers required), who use dubious measurement tools to pick certain things as “best practice” and then force others to follow them through top-down bullying tactics.

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