Levers of change: Ways that policymakers can shape the education system
With a general election looming there is much debate in the world of education about the next government’s decisions on what our children learn. But deciding this is only part of the issue for any new government. Just as important is understanding how they can actually implement those decisions. Knowing the advantages and drawbacks of all the different levers at government’s disposal is vital. In this blog, AQA’s head of external affairs Reza Schwitzer discusses what these levers are and their pros and cons.
An election next year (or soon after) could well mean a new Education Secretary with new ideas on what we teach our children, be it subject specific ones such as relationship and sex education, or a more wide-ranging curriculum review.
Determining new content is difficult but arguably harder is actually implementing those changes.
Knowing how to do this requires a solid understanding of all the levers of change at the government's disposal.
There are quite a few available so let's take a look at how the main ones work, their benefits and drawbacks.
The national curriculum
This one is the most obvious.
The benefit is essentially that writing content into the national curriculum ensures that it is taught - and that what children learn in Leeds is consistent with what they learn in Exeter.
Or does it?
One potential drawback is that it only technically applies to LA-maintained schools. Academies and free schools, which account for around 80% of secondary schools, don’t have to deliver the National Curriculum (even though in practice most do).
Perhaps more saliently, the more you write into the national curriculum, the quicker it becomes out-dated and needs reviewing again.
And, of course, the more you will be directly prescribing what young people are taught rather than trusting the professional judgement of teachers.
Broadly speaking, for GCSEs and A levels, the DfE specifies the subject content, Ofqual sets out how that should be assessed, and exam boards then write conforming qualification specifications which include their own take on how that is best achieved.
The benefit of this lever is that it removes some of the burden from government and encourages innovation by exam bodies which in turn offers a degree of consumer choice.
But the danger is that the tail could wag the dog.
An over-reliance on assessment may dictate teaching, when in fact, what we want young people to learn should determine what we assess them on.
There are areas of curriculum content that Ofsted has a role in verifying are taking place – PE is a good example.
The national curriculum requires children to experience a breadth of sports. This breadth cannot always be measured in a final assessment.
Having a visit from an inspector can record what is happening on the ground and gives students an opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do.
A benefit of using Ofsted as a lever is that schools take it very seriously and inspectors can see whether schools are teaching the curriculum and not just, for example, to pass a test.
However, inspections capture just a moment in time and can be a blunt tool. There has also been criticism of an overreliance on Ofsted findings to drive change.
These can be an effective policy tool for driving change and are set directly by the DfE.
They are a practical expression of what the government deems valuable in education and what schools ‘ought’ to provide for students in terms of teaching.
Their benefit is that although they incentivise the school curriculum, unlike statutory guidance, they do not impinge directly on school’s operational autonomy.
The main downside is that accountability measures can create perverse incentives such as schools teaching just those subjects and qualifications that are covered by the measures and nothing else.
In this way, they can in reality be just as prescriptive as some of the earlier measures discussed, especially if the consequences of performing poorly against such measures are severe.
Another issue is that if the accountability framework is changed very frequently, this can create an unstable environment for schools’ planning.
Statutory or non-statutory guidance
Statutory guidance, such as that covering the National Curriculum, is legally binding and enforceable, creates uniform provision and sets out clear accountability structures.
But, it can be complex to understand. The rigidity of statutory guidance also means that if circumstances change there is little room for discretion and it is difficult to adapt quickly.
Non-statutory guidance, for example like that regarding careers guidance, has the opposite qualities. It is generally easier to understand and implement. Its flexibility makes it more adaptable if needs change.
But, this flexibility can also lead to inconsistent provision and, as it is not legally binding, there may be confusion about whether it should be followed with no direct consequences for failing to do so.
In practice, choosing between the two depends on the context and goals.
The DfE can identify areas in education it wants improved or groups of students it wants to attract to key subjects then fund ways of doing so.
One example is the hubs offering free or subsidised CPD and training to those teaching, or wishing to teach, subjects such as Computing, maths, English, languages and music.
The benefits of this form of funding is that it can solve specific problems such as subject specialist teacher shortages which in turn can attract students to follow specified courses.
The huge drawback is obviously that money does not grow on trees.
Another problem is that direct grant funding is usually best-used as a short-term fix. For example, having lots of learning hubs dotted around the country, funded by individual grants, may not be the most efficient long-term solution.
Embedding topics in teacher training and CPD
One way to make it more likely that something is taught in schools is to ensure teachers learn to teach it.
This will not work for specific content like, say, the Vietnam War, because it won’t be relevant to 99% of those doing initial teacher training.
But it can work for more thematic subjects. For example, if you want young people to learn more about the role of women across all subjects, you could infuse it into initial teacher training and ongoing CPD.
Instead of just having top-down directives, teachers and leaders could be empowered to decide how important topics are taught.
Whilst you might not get the levels of consistency provided by the routes above, on some issues this might lead to more genuine innovation around some of the issues facing education.
So, these are just some of the bigger levers for policy change.
Knowing they exist and the ramifications of applying them is the first stage in decision making by any government wishing to bring about a change in trajectory.