Why do we have Politics in Education?

This is part 1 of my free eCourse based on the Politics in Education Summit on the International Overview, Historical Background and Current Conditions by Tim Oates, Laura McInerney and Bill Lucas.

The International Overview by Tim Oates

Tim Oates is known for advising that we drop ‘levels’ of progress for primary students. This has now happened, so children in Years 2 and 6 no longer receive an end of key stage ‘level’ (reference gov.uk). Here’s Tim talking about the purpose of the new curriculum (14 min):

An Extract from Tim Oates’ Politics in Education Presentation

“To ministers, it must appear overwhelming to get a new brief and to know that there’s something wrong and have an inkling that there are problems with the system that you’ve inherited the management of, and you want to act. So who do you talk to? What evidence do you appeal to? …what are the major jurisdictions that are performing well? What do they have in common? And what emerged from that analysis was that they had curriculum coherence.”

Who is Tim Oates?

Extracts from this Schools Week article, June’15: Awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List for his services to education, he has come a long way from his grammar school days at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury: “I wanted to read what I was interested in – not what the teachers were telling me to read. My initial set of exam grades at 16 were appalling. Bad and weird!”

…his father Charles was “a kind of bohemian artist – but he did all the graphic work for some very large companies during the 1950s and early 1960s”. This included all the box-top art for kit model manufacturers Airfix. But his father, who was very disabled after having contracted polio during his youth, died when Oates was six. “My memory of time with him is still very acute,” says Oates. “The house was always full of models. He worked at home and it was a great childhood.” He remembers “roaming the countryside in a completely unrestrained way, up to my knees in mud chasing crayfish”.

Advised by his grammar school to go to Oxford, he instead chose Sussex University – where he could pursue his interest in contemporary philosophy, as well as literature. He married when he was in his mid-30s: “to a very lovely woman who died of cancer within a year of us marrying. I did not think I would ever have a family.” His partner is Jane and they have two children – a boy of nine, called Alex, and a girl called Erin.

His interest in (film) started early – when he was seriously ill with mumps at the age of 14 and off school for months. “My mother knew I was struggling with a serious infection, so she bought me a small portable television,” he recalls. “What she did not know – and certainly wouldn’t have approved of – is that New World Cinema was on at 11pm, so I watched some incredibly interesting films, including all the Ingmar Bergman films and that did change me quite a lot. I thought a lot about government and revolution and what schooling and the state does.

“So by the time I got to my mid-20s I was not a violent revolutionary – I was suspicious of any form of political organisation. I was interested in evidence.” Oates became an educational researcher after he was asked to help out on a project while still a postgraduate student at Sussex, and subsequently introduced to a “bunch of leading theorists in educational research”.

Official Summary of Tim Oates’ Politics in Education Presentation, Will ‘the best’ always naturally percolate to the surface? 

Tim’s presentation was drawn from his uniquely international viewpoint and delivered in his characteristic analytical style. First noting the challenge of understanding the complexities of education systems, he pointed to ‘curriculum coherence’ as a key factor common to high performing jurisdictions.  By this he means teachers not being conflicted by different aspects of the education system such as accountability, national standards and curriculum materials. He argued that Governments require curriculum control to influence curriculum coherence, though this need not be top-down control, nor should it be exercised solely through curriculum content revisions. Governments, Tim proposed, must have curriculum control because of their inescapable moral duty to ensure all students access all concepts and subjects they are entitled to. Tim warned against ‘policy borrowing’ while noting election cycles encourage this. He suggested that national discourse and involvement in education, already valued by our politicians, needs to be widely encouraged.

Sharp facts from Tim

  • When we introduced a national curriculum in 1988, we were one of the first countries to have one – now most do, but they’re wise enough to name them ‘frameworks’ or ‘standards’
  • At that same time events were driving “the system towards curriculum coherence to a point where possibly a national curriculum was not actually necessary”
  • The concept of ‘entitlement’ has been highly effective in raising attainment (Chitty C 2004; Colwill I & Peacey N 2003) and ‘curriculum entitlement’ has enhanced performance of girls in maths and science (Machin S & McNally S 2006)

Tell us more about  ‘curriculum coherence’

“Whenever there’s a national curriculum, everybody wants in, because they think of it as the (only) legislative game in town.” Other education policy factors affecting ‘curriculum coherence’ are, for example…

  1. Curriculum support materials etc.
  2. National Qualification Frameworks
  3. Links with Social Care services
  4. Assessments & Qualifications
  5. Institution Development
  6. Teacher Development
  7. Teaching Methods
  8. Management
  9. Governance
  10. Inspections

Does size matter? 

“One of the problematic things, of course, is just we’re big, and we joked – I’m afraid – not maliciously, but it’s not a great joke; if you want to manage the education system in this country effectively, just reduce the population to about five million, because if you look at the high performing jurisdictions, they tend to be small.” – perhaps this tells us something about the importance of social discourse that allows coherence to be managed across the policy factors?


“We were told autonomy is good. Schools need to be autonomous and they need to be autonomous because of course schools in Finland are autonomous and they do brilliantly, don’t they? Because we got off the plane and we asked them whether they were autonomous. They said yes, and we got back on the plane (laughter). Big mistake.”


“The question should have been, “What were your schools like during the period of intense improvement?” And the key point here is that from moribund performance during the 1960s and 1970s, there was wide social discourse in a small country with an homogenous population about the idea of improvement and about what system they should all elect to adopt and pursue – despite potential social differences that might arise, that they should all adopt and pursue in order to raise attainment, improve equity and improve enjoyment in schooling.

And they adopted – they decided to go for a fully comprehensive education system. This was enforced from the period 1980 to about the late 1990s, through what some of the Fins call the iron fist in the iron glove. Inspectors in every classroom. National testing of every grade. State-approved textbooks. Is this a picture of Finland that you’ve heard about? That you’ve read about? It surely ain’t.

Now I’m not saying that that’s the way forward, but unless we understand the true historical record of how curriculum coherence has been obtained in particular jurisdictions, we’ll be fooling ourselves by going for sloganistic top line generalised statements, like autonomy is good, collaboration will do it all, the good will always percolate to the top.”

Shanghai & Japan?

“…yes, very often the teachers are all on the same chapter of the maths textbook in different classrooms on the same day, but the content of those textbooks have been refined… there are teacher research groups in the schools. The ten best lessons and best learning activities identified by those teachers go into competitions, and from those competitions, they are selected and included in the next round of state-approved textbooks. So yes, it’s top down but only through bottom-up extraction using criteria, and then it’s an instrument for affecting control.”

Concluding Statement

“When Nick Gibb said this in 2010 it caused an outrage amongst civil servants and educationalists, and I thought it was one of the most finely balanced quotes from a minister of many decades, ‘Apart from the Key Stage 2 test results and GCSE outcomes, I have no interest in the assessment carried out by schools’ (Nick Gibb, 2010).

And there was a sharp intake of breath by the civil servants and the teachers, and they said, “That’s appalling.” But of course, this comes from many teachers who were actually very concerned about the extent to which the state was reaching down too deeply into classrooms. This was a very careful balancing statement between the interests of the state in entitlement and the importance of schools in determining rich, engaging and motivating learning which occurs in the context of the classroom. The balance between the national curriculum and the school curriculum.”

Politics in Education? 

“I think we need to take education out of the political cycle, but you can’t take education out of politics, because education is about knowledge and the apportionment of knowledge in society is about power and authority, and that is politics.”

The Historical Background by Laura McInerney

Laura McInerney is known for her work “Slaying Dragons” i.e. getting school news into the National Press via Schools Week.

Opening Statements from Laura McInerney’s Politics in Education Presentation

“I’m going to think about to what extent politicians have the right to interfere, and how has it changed over time. I recently interviewed Nick Gibb… in which I said I wasn’t very happy between 2010-12, being in a classroom while he was in minister, and he outlined why this debate was so important, why the discussion matters, how he feels that everybody should be a stakeholder in what’s happening and that we only get to better solutions by having discussion and debate. And it suddenly felt absolutely fine… But it doesn’t mean I don’t still go back to this feeling of, blimey, who is this guy who thinks it’s aright to just have a whack at people in the national newspaper for the sake of a debate? So is it okay? Should politicians interfere?”

Who is Laura McInerney?

Laura became a teacher through Teach First and taught in London for several years before studying Education policy in the US, then joining Schools Week in 2015. This video was uploaded 2011:

Official Summary of Laura McInerney’s Politics in Education Presentation, How much control does or should Government have? 

Laura, with her journalistic flair, treated us to an engaging talk by setting up all kinds of awkward juxtapositions within our education system. There’s a paradox, for example, where political rhetoric around increased school freedoms is developed alongside increasing powers of the Secretary of State that mean laws can now be made, linked to a schools capital funding, effectively ensuring state control over operations at school level. Moving this further, while the Secretary of State holds those powers, advisors share them and Laura described how rapidly advisor groups have rotated over time and whenever a Secretary of State is replaced. While this is in no way ideal, she explores alternatives to central political control; locally elected control or soft power. Local control -LEAs- lead to inconsistency across the country, which has moral implications meaning Government is obliged to step in. Soft power -teachers, universities, charities and other organisations- lack the implicit accountability of an elected central Government. Which group ought to have power?

Politics in Education?

“So we end up in this weird situation as we go throughout the day when we’re talking about politics and education, where we have to think about, if it’s not one of these groups, who else is it? Do we come up with some kind of middle quango where there might be a middle way? What does that mean for accountability? What does that mean for inconsistency? And what does that mean for implementation and any negative issues? And only once we know who it will be and what the consequences are do you actually solve this problem of politics in education.

But ultimately you’re never going to get around the fact that when you take people’s taxes and when you take people’s children, you’re going to have to answer to somebody. Someone has to be in charge. It’s simply going to be a case of who.”

The Current Conditions by Bill Lucas

Along with Guy Claxton, Bill Lucas is the creator of one of the biggest teacher researcher groups in the world: the Expansive Education Network. Bill Lucas is the on the right in this short video:

An Extract from Bill Lucas’ Politics in Education Presentation

“At the general school level, there’s a new idea on the street. It’s the idea of a core academic subject. I think this is one of the most linguistically and politically and semantically toxic concepts I’ve come across, personally. The idea that there is a core academic subject is silly. It really is, especially if you don’t have any of the arts currently mentioned there. If I were Ruby (the granddaughter of Rita from ‘Educating Rita’) in the education system, I would recommend that intelligence is that ‘Intelligence is whether or not you can achieve A*-C at GCSE in certain subjects’ …I don’t think that’s good enough, do you?”

Who is Bill Lucas?

“My dad was an inspector when it was the DES and science was a word in there. He was the first in our family to stay on at school after 14 and then 15, then 16 and 19, so it became pretty important as a route out of poverty for the Lucas family. It’s Department for Education now. The fault line is around relationship with work and skill, and relationship with home and community. I think we have to have both of those in the heavenly trio that has to be a country’s education department.”

Opening Statements from Bill Lucas’ Politics in Education Presentation

“Our expansive education network is the answer to Tim’s question about autonomy as it’s about disciplined inquiry led by individual teachers and collaborations of teachers and whole academy networks and across phase and across sectors… I think governments really need to focus on two questions. One is, which I’m further focusing, academic or practical/vocational; what really counts. And the other is the bigger purposes of education.”

Official Summary of Bill Lucas’ Politics in Education Presentation, A critical look at politics in education

Bill brought wide-ranging questions to the table: What do we value? What is the point of school, and of education? What would ‘the best’ in education look like? Can we distinguish between education, a vision of what young people need and school, a system to fulfil that need? He argued in favour of an independent education body to lift schools out of their current vulnerable position under the influence short-term party politics. In essence, he calls for a wide conversation with the aim of reaching a nationally agreed, stable set of broad outcomes that we’d like, as a society, to progress towards. The main tragedy with politics in education, he suggests, is how quickly we can fall into blame and gap analysis, rather than proactive support and appreciative enquiry.

Concluding Statement from Bill Lucas’ Politics in Education Presentation

“Knowledge or skills. STEM or humanities and the arts. Didactic or constructivist. Formal or informal. All technology or no technology. Character developed at school or at home. We’ve got to get rid, I believe, of the ‘or’. It has to be an ‘and’. And one of the means of doing this, I think, is unambiguously to take education, with a capital E, out of the realm of party politics and certainly out of the realm of a certain kind of party politics, of which we’ve seen a fair amount in the past.”

Thank you so much for caring enough about education to read these summit contributions. What has most surprised you from this content? What frustrates you about the messages shared? And, how do you now feel about the place of Politics in Education?

In part 2 of this free eCourse, we introduce voices representing the teaching profession, the marginalised, businesses and academia.

If you would like to go into this, the full original transcripts and power-point slides are available. To request more information on this just ask from this contact page.

  • Kamil Trzebiatowski

    The actual data from Finland (the graph) is actually a bit surprising, and clearly stands in the opposition to the usual discourse. That is, it is both surprising and not surprising at all: I am all about context, both in my classroom and in wider education, and has always opposed the strange idea that you can take an education system / approach from another country (Finland, Sweden, China, Japan…) and apply it to another (England). However, a different picture is painted when I see that the results have gone down. However, these are on “international assessments”: if that’s PISA, I’ll be equally as suspicious (no assessments are ideal). In fact, the very idea that you can define a country’s “school improvement” by running it against a single assessment system (whoever has designed it) goes against Tim Oates’s idea of more deep assessment in the classroom. Are the Fins (or whoever else) supposed to be Level 8 now, internationally? In addition, there is no way to design any assessment without excluding someone. International tests such as PISA and PIRLS are great political tools, of course, but 10 minutes into research into the issues with testing easily uncover the practical issues with designing assessments.

    Frustrating is, I suppose, that we’ll never have a perfect system. There are conflicting messages coming from the three people that Leah has presented us with here. I’ll pick just one example: Laura McInerney, for instance (in the video), says that “PGCE course would be too long for her”. Well, I am sorry, but if teachers are to know “what the point of education is” (Bill Lucas) then they have to study long and hard works of Maslov, Krashen, Bloom, Holt, Vygotsky and many more who spoke about what education is for. TeachFirst troubles me greatly as a concept – it undermines the very idea of teachers-researchers in that it produces the view that anyone “innately talented” can do the job. PGCE is not too long – it’s barely long enough. You can’t answer these questions without thinking long and hard about them before you start. What are you in education for? Questioning politics and and political philosophies about what education is for (Ken Robinson: is the whole point of education creating university professors?) is at the heart of the bottom-up approach; teachers need to be able to do that. On-the-job learning means individual schools can present teachers with their vision (which is influenced by external government pressures!) and politics is then NOT taken out of schools; rather, it’s reinforced. Lucas and McInerney have clearly completely opposite ideas about who teachers are supposed to be in the first place. That’s frustrating.

    In my view, and today’s reading reinforced this, politics in education has its place (someone has to be in charge), but this cannot translate into “iron fist consistency” classrooms. Impose politics-driven approaches of “learn on the job” and “best graduates into teaching” and take universities out of the equation and you have a system where government policies are challenged less. Universities prepare teachers to question the status quo. If anything, isn’t THAT the purpose of education? Ask difficult questions and learn from these questions to continually improve?

  • Leah K Stewart

    Thank you Kamil for your enthusiasm and deep thinking to take the time to write this. Glad my question prompts seemed to help. “…(the graph) is actually a bit surprising, and clearly stands in the opposition to the usual discourse” – this is brought up in day2 and I think you’ll like it. Expanding on your thoughts about assessment; it’s difficult, like you say, with any system. I was going to say if PISA criteria changes less than Ofsted seems to, at least it’s constant over time so result fluctuations mean something? And yet, if assessment stays the same for long enough and begins to be seen as an annoying constant (to students, teachers, schools, nations) people will learn to hack the assessment, meaning deep learning is sidelined. Oooh, liking your argument about on-the-job as way to embed and increase the influence of politics at school level. Do you think wider access and more intelligent use of collaboration via the internet (courses like this?) might reduce the closed-box repeat issue you see with in-school teacher training? On contradictions: you’ll notice a load of subtly and blatantly conflicting messages in this course content Kamil. I’ve not tried to hide any of that because, for me, conflicts at this level make the topic so fascinating. I’d always thought people, like our speakers, with social rank, qualifications, experience and intelligence would agree on what’s right. Though I know now that was a naive view of society I’d formed from a school experience that seemed very certain and united in the teaching of me and my peers.

  • Kamil Trzebiatowski

    Hah! Looking forward to doing Day 2 in a few minutes time, then!
    In reply to your question about collaboration via the internet, my answer is “absolutely”. The more “enlightened” teachers out there, the greater capacity for the bottom-up decision making approach. We need to be able to question what we do and suggest evidence-based solutions (I simply mean research-based, really, as, on the other hand I see the phrase “what works” – for EAL, SEN, pupil premium students, etc. – is overused and misses the point that, with human beings being taught, flexibility is needed) to affect how schools are run. School training sessions tend to focus too much on “strategies” (I know this all too well being an EAL Coordinator and training other teachers) without focusing or considering at all underlying issues and theories of education. With EAL, for instance, somehow it is (completely erroneously, of course) viewed that there are some common strategies for “EAL learners” (who might be refugees, fully literate in L1 students from Lithuania, students with no prior schooling, students unable to do handwriting, students born in the UK to migrant parents…) All thrown into one EAL bag. So rather than asking for “strategies”, we need to understanding the underlying issues. But that takes time – time for teachers to actually think about what they are doing and how they’re going to meet those individual needs. More informed teachers will put pressure on SLTs. If this starts online, then that’s what we need to do. Despite the odds not necessarily in their favour, teacher professionalism, teacher power and agency are growing and it’s rather obvious. TeachMeets, courses like yours, Pedagoo (which I am a curator for) build teachers’ awareness and broaden their mindsets and contribute to this. We just need to be braver and be more willing to challenge, I think. We need to do our research for that bravery not to be fool-hardy, though. The on-the-job approach attempts to lock teachers into following one agenda of my school or a school chain. That’s no way to run SCHOOLS – don’t we teach children to think CRITICALLY? Armed with research, we can – collectively – start countering this.

  • Richard Clark

    I find all of this content interesting. It’s not a criticism, but what I am gleaning from this is further thoughts and activities of the political aspects of education, rather than the political context itself.

  • Leah K Stewart

    Hi Richard, you’ve perfectly expressed my own concern (unarticulated in my head) about how I presented this section and what it actually contains. The intention in the planning stages was that this would be a context-setting section… in reality this hits against the fact we’ve individuals with their own agendas presenting the various sessions, which pulls the content towards a presentation of the activities around the political aspects of education. Perhaps at some point I’ll find a way / person to give us a more text-book style presentation of the political context, and add that as an option to the start of this course? I’ll keep my eye out. This is a developing project, so thanks again for your thoughts to improve it further.

  • Alan Gurbutt

    What surprises me most about the content of this course is that I agree with all that I have understood the commentators to have said. They have stuck to the sharp facts and haven’t gone down the road of social class and school structure, though I do accept class, economic inequality and school structure impacts upon learning.

    I feel frustrated that key stage levels are still correlated with the 11+ to sort children into grammar schools and secondary modern schools, both of which comprise selective education. With the issues facing civilisation can we really afford to delineate children into vocational/practical and academic? Nurses and doctors have a range of skills, as do children. As Tim says top performing jurisdictions provide fully comprehensive educational systems.

    Electoral cycles linked to conflictual policy changes cause stress and pain to teachers and students. Better to work in cross-party mode but I don’t expect with the nature of the Westminster bubble this is likely to happen unless we have a change of government willing to work with school leaders that isn’t hellbent on labelling struggling families as hard to reach to detract from cuts. I’ll stop there. But socioeconomic status does affect learning, and there are poor areas in many constituencies, irrespective of political hue. I do see, however, that governments need to take ownership of universal entitlement.

    Finally, I like what Laura has to say about student-teacher relationships. My daughter has spent the weekend baking cakes for her teachers as a thank you for their support – she finishes Y11 on Friday. It is clear they have made a massive positive impact to her life. With regards to home and community, I think our teachers’ jobs could be made much easier under a comprehensive education system that wouldn’t have to deal with self-esteem issues linked to the 11+. Our area retains selection, which has a divisive effect upon our community and local politics – opinion is too influenced by one’s own personal educational experiences which prevents inclusive debate.

  • Leah K Stewart

    Hi Alan, great to hear from you and your thoughts on this first section of the eCourse. You say “opinion is too influenced by one’s own personal educational experiences which prevents inclusive debate” and, this is true. I hope we can accept this and look to see past it. For example, you praise Laura, while @kamiltrzebiatowski:disqus finds the fact she says a ‘PGCE is too long for her’ not OK for a teacher. This is just one example of good, intelligent people fiercely differing on what is right for education. Coming up on email (the email after next) I’ve got an amazing video to share with you from one of our panel contributors to the Politics in Education Summit. You’ll really like it and get lots form it, I’m sure of that!

  • Christalla Jamil

    Hi Leah,

    Just catching up on the course over the weekend. So from Day 1 these are my comments (3.9.16):

    My initial reaction to Tim Oates’ video is “thank goodness—at last someone who is talking some sense”. This is what drove me to make contact with Alison last year. This is why I have stopped ability grouping/ teaching in my school. This is why we are becoming more effective as a school.
    My concern is that there is no end of palliative rhetoric flying around at the moment and teachers, who naturally do what they’re told (in spite of the obvious evidence that it’s been so ‘wrong’ in the past), are unlikely to question such things as ‘making teacher assessment more reliable’. I particularly appreciate the outline about inconsistency between assessment methods and I am very concerned at the moment that we are being asked to carry out an impossible task – make reliable judgements without a yardstick at all. I also totally agree that embedded assessment and learning is the way to go but it seems to move further away the closer we get! The data from the graph shown did surprise me but we are not Finland and the initial comparative bothered me.
    All that aside, as a leader of a school serving a deprived area which poses many challenges we continue to do our best. We have looked at the KS statutory assessment points (using that as our yard stick) and have made further tweaks to what our expectations are of learning across our school. Ultimately we all want what is best for our pupils and will do what is needed to provide this. We continue to have high expectations and support staff and our stakeholders to continue to move forward.

    With Laura McInerney’s video I was slightly perturbed by the assumption of the PGCE being too long, yet Kamil did voice my opinion well so I will not repeat it.

    The final part- Bill Lucas and Expansive Education- agree with all stated and have actually always worked in this way myself and promoted action research in my school. My comparatives are of course from my own experience and so limited but ultimately we all want pupils who are more independent, more aware of themselves as learners and teachers who are more open, explore more and are more inquisitive.

    I don’t think we can take politics out of education for the power will cease. I just believe the decision makers should consist of more current practitioners across a wider range of schools.

    Thoughts so far. I’ll look at Day 2 tomorrow.

  • Leah K Stewart

    On action research, your thought ‘comparatives are of course from my own experience and so limited…’ is interesting to me. I’d like you to have more confidence in the validity of your own experience because action research (as I understand it) fully embraces the fact that no single experience can be repeated, especially not with different people, and even when one group of people go through the same experience they each take away different things and can even have different views on the whole purpose of the experience! This is what’s coming up in the findings of action research I’m following now. It’s fun because it’s getting academics and those in ‘crystal palaces’ to rethink how much influence we really have on others and how important personal experience is.