Official Summaries from the Politics in Education Summit

The Politics in Education Summit was independently organised and held in November 2015 at the Royal Society in London attracting leaders from across education and policy to discuss the role of politics in education today.

The following official summaries were created by me to go along with the event transcripts, which were presented to UK Education Policy Makers. The full event summaries are included below so that everyone can access this information and become part of this discussion.

The One Page Summary

To ask what education is for is to ask what society is for. This became the powerful, perceptive message of the Politics in Education Summit. The importance of stability was a recurring theme in the presentations and panel debates. The creation of a…


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SESSION 1: Government’s Role and Responsibility

Tim Oates: 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.

Tim Oates CBE (Cambridge Assessment) Shatters Finland’s Progressive Narrative: Inspectors in Every Classroom, National Testing of Every Grade, State Approved Text Books Led to Their PISA Rise

Laura McInerney: How much control does our Secretary of State for Education 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?

Laura McInerney (Schools Week) Warns: Government is Discussing a New Bill which, if passed, will Force the Secretary of State for Education to Take Over Failing Church Schools

Bill Lucas: A critical look at Government’s involvement 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.

Professor Bill Lucas (Real World Learning) Calls for an Independent Education Body so Schools aren’t Vulnerable to Whims of Party Politics

This Summit was organised by Smooth Events, an event management company known for high level, policy-based conferences across education, science and health sectors. partners


Where’s the right place for politics within our education system?

Chief executive of the Key, Fergal Roche, was interested in expanding on ideas around the extent to which universities condition higher education. Ann Finlayson, chief executive of SEEd brought up issues of people seeing things from fundamentally different viewpoints and how this impacts debate. Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network drew on Tim Oates point that the most effective school systems are in countries with small populations and wondered if this might be an argument for giving more power to local authorities.

Hugh Burkhardt of the Shell Centre at the University of Nottingham noted how broader school curriculums can be shot down by universities, particularly science universities, on the grounds they would need 4 year courses; he asked if we can discuss throwing things out in parallel with conversations on what is needed. An assistant head teacher, Matt, pointed to the difficulty schools face implementing new ideas when support is not thought through and another assistant principle, John, working in an academy asked if we can trust academy chains to take the lead.

Leah K Stewart asked if we need to let go of answers for a while, to actively encourage greater public discourse. Catherine O’Connell, a lecturer in education at Liverpool Hope University, was curious whether panel members had any experience of co-created and nuanced policy targets. Finally, Harriet Berkeley, from Teaching Leaders, enquired whether there’s any consensus amongst panel members on the best way teachers can influence policy.

Panel debates on these themes with Jonathan Simons (Policy Exchange), John David Blake (Harris Foundation), Bill Lucas, Laura McInerney and Tim Oates begin on Transcript Page 15; explore at your own pace with the Virtual Summit Experience (request more information from this contact page)

SESSION 2: Stakeholder Roles and Perspectives

Chris McShane: Representing the teaching profession and school leadership- Chris courageously stepped up to speak when Ros McMullen had to pull out.  He began with concern around public services being used as a tool by career politicians creating a pace of policy change that confuses the profession, leading to anger and certainly fears. Narrowing the curriculum is necessary to meet EBacc targets, though he called for the teaching profession to act as a safeguard. Parents don’t feel informed or part of the discussion and are no longer sure what to do for the best. An image problem has created a teacher recruitment problem, leading to a problem for students; our major stakeholders. Core budgets are not being protected and political interference, instead of support, has become normal. Despite these challenges, Chris described the richness of ‘life without levels’ debates and expressed hope we’ll not rush to answers, but take time to consider where we are, what we’re doing and what we want to achieve.

Chris McShane (Headteachers’ Round Table) Hopes the Profession Will Safeguard a Balanced Curriculum Despite New EBacc Targets

Brian Lamb: The challenges of creating consensus for reform- Brian won our attention with the startling fact that until the 1970’s, SEN children weren’t considered educatable. He introduced Warnock’s Government led inquiry which changed that, although it went wrong; Select Committee inquiries, an Ofsted review and various think tank reports led to a green paper supporting SEN aspiration and only 3 of Brian’s 51 recommendations were about legislation, the others were about culture. Related to that, he shared the home truth that political traction would not have happened if he’d said at the start the work would take 10 years. To change policy over successive Governments, Brian advised, we need to know what media is saying, what the education minister wants and have a clear, reasonable narrative about our reforms. Once moving, successive Governments went slowly on SEN reforms -deliberately- to keep parental and lobby groups on board, while maintaining cross party consensus. Of course, the sector didn’t like everything the Government did, though an impressive amount of agreement made it possible.

Brian Lamb OBE (Achievement for All): To Change Policy We Need to Know What Ministers Want and Not Say It’ll Take Longer Than One Term

Neil Carberry: Does our education system serve business and industry needs?  Neil began by dismissing his title to ask this, instead: How do we build a system that gives young people a great path into a great adult life? He expressed the importance of businesses no longer engaging in any guilt free whinge about education before shattering two myths; (1) businesses do not have a dim view of young people and, in fact, young people are the most impressive employees according to CBI members and (2) businesses do not want automatons which, he proposed, is a political argument against businesses that dare to speak on education. Neil calls us to aspire to long term political thinking on education and accountability that doesn’t instil fear in schools, but confidence. He suggested strategy via things like accreditation, rather than tactics such as reforming exams as a better way forward. In the future, Neil hopes for individualised learning plans for every secondary student and to see schools transformed into community hubs.

Neil Carberry (Confederation of British Industry) Supports an End to Guilt Free Whinging about the System

Andrew Pollard: What might a research informed education system look like? Andrew launched with this question; how effectively do different elements of research process deliver a product? The education researchers he described recognise the complexity of teaching, learning and the social world while also holding true that social research can produce important insights, forms of understanding and knowledge we ought to take seriously. We have an underperforming school system, not because of any lack of goodwill or expertise, but because we lack knowledge mobilisation. The haphazard nature of research means few look ahead strategically. Andrew’s work showcases the strengths of many sorts of research, including practitioner enquiry. A wise Government, he suggests, would consider whether it has adequate provision across the system to nurture all types of research. In all, he hopes to inspire more open-mindedness to evidence from policy makers and influencers moving forward.

Professor Andrew Pollard (University College London): We Have an Underperforming School System because We Lack Knowledge Mobilisation


How well does our education system meet the needs of stakeholders?  

Teacher and education author, Lucy Crehan, wondered if there was any leverage in the idea of separating out goals, which politicians should have a role in establishing, from how we get there which should be left to experts and practitioners. Ann Finlayson, SEEd, asked how we get to the point where teachers trust the system and can actually be researchers themselves? School governor, Rachel Gooch, led with the statement that children get one chance at education and every day a child spends in a failing system or school is one day too many. She asked; how do we reconcile that urgency with the powerful call for a longer term and more consensual approach to policy development and implementation?

Wendy from Safe Child Movement wanted to bring it back to the child and the rights of the child. She asked; how do we ensure that we’re joining up the dots between achievement and wellbeing so we don’t just have children with fantastic exam results, but on antidepressants? She pointed out that the statistics are horrendous. Hugh Burkhardt suggested that applying an academic value system to education research, to use a medical analogy, is all about diagnosis and could certainly licence the Government to deign detailed initiatives – how do we balance research support between diagnosis and the engineering of robust solutions?

Panel debates on these themes with Sam Freedman (Teach First), Neil Carberry, Brian Lamb, Andrew Pollard, Chris McShane and Laura McInerney begin on Transcript Page 37; explore at your own pace with the Virtual Summit Experience (request more information from this contact page)

SESSION 3: Controls, Safeguards and Balance

Sir John Dunford: Does education need an evidence centre to inform policy and practice?John claimed the most significant negative about the creation of Ofsted in 1992 was the consequential loss of professional voice from within the Department of Education, though he believes this could be rectified by the creation of a Chief Education Officer position within an Evidence Centre, of which there are many international examples, even our own Heath department incudes several Chief Officers and NICE. John praised grass root movements in this direction such as ResearchED and the Education Endowment Foundation. To speak without fear or favour this Evidence Centre must be independent of both Government and the teaching profession with these aims; (1) to better understand the impact on education policies on young people, (2) mobilise knowledge and (3) develop abilities in communicating findings to a wide range of audiences. After over 25 years of being told what to do, since 1988, it’s now time for the profession to stop looking up and start looking out at the evidence, and use that. John called for a public debate on these ideas.

Sir John Dunford (Whole Education): With Ofsted We Lost Professional Voice in Government

Angela McFarlane: Will the College of Teaching re-professionalise the profession? Angela agreed, from a personal perspective, on the need for an Evidence Centre which could be a valuable sister organisation to the College of Teaching. The College itself is envisaged as an enabling organisation for practitioners to have an active dialogue between each other and stakeholders. Unlike several hundred professions, there is not an active chartered body for teaching and there’s no other professional body of this kind in education; autonomous by virtue of its royal charter and voluntary. With there being no agreed pathway into teaching and unstructured professional development thereafter, it’s important teachers come together to hammer out some nationally agreed standards of development, accredited by chartered professional status. This new chartered body, if it works, will be run by members for members and ultimately, for the benefit of learners. This aligns the vision with other professional communities that exist to ensure the best outcomes for those they serve, such as the Royal Colleges of Medicine, Chartered Institutes of Engineers and Chartered Accountancy Bodies.

Professor Angela McFarlane (College of Teachers) agrees, from a personal perspective, on the Need for an Education Evidence Centre as a Sister Organisation to the College of Teaching

John Bangs: The role of unions in influencing Education Policy and Practice- John joined the debate by introducing Education International, the biggest global union federation that exists, representing over 32 million teachers from around the world with a powerful research hub drawing on the experience of its several hundred affiliate organisations. Moving onto OECD, John advised that a systematic approach to teacher policy is the spine of an effective education system and added that embedded reform will not happen without this and engagement from teacher unions. Within the unions ‘professional development’ is discussed the most, alongside working conditions, equality issues and the curriculum. In John’s experience, it’s a sign of decay when the profession starts believing every action the Government takes is against them. This puts the profession on the back foot; there’s a need to step forward.

John Bangs (Education International): Embedded Reform Will Not Happen Without Systematic Approach to Policy and Engagement from Unions

Emma Knights: The challenges facing Governing Boards- Representing Governors, Emma chose to explore how we might apply the principles of good governance to the school system as a whole. Governance is not only about safeguarding public expenditure, it’s about ensuring young people get a good education. Regulation, inspection and auditing are important and it is right that Government set frameworks and standards for the whole system. Management process and performance monitoring within education seem behind the times of other sectors; Emma’s message to education is that it’s not all about ‘sticks’ it should be about ‘carrots’ too. Thinking about system scrutiny by non-executives, such as governors, Emma would like to see a bigger debate on balances between local and central powers, while acknowledging that we are all opinion informed. To support productive debate, she recommended we declare our biases.

Emma Knights (National Government Association): Management in Education Lags Behind Other Sectors; It’s Not All About Sticks, but Carrots Too


How might we re-imagine Government’s role in education?

Colin Lofthouse, head teacher asked whether initial teacher training moving out of universities might create a profession that doesn’t see itself as having a place in educational research.  Berica, a journalist, was interested in how the panel think the media coverage is affecting teacher’s understanding of Government policy and the public understands of teachers. Another delegate directed his question to Angela and asked; would bringing in a new teacher qualification devalue qualifications teachers already have?

Fergal Roche from the Key wondered whether there is a danger we’re handing major responsibility for the nation’s development to lay people who are not qualified to make judgements about education. Safe Childhood Movement, Wendy Elliott, began by expressing support for a new independent Evidence Centre then asked in what ways we’re ensuring evidence looks at the science of human learning and development rather than just seeing learning as something that starts when you go to school. Another delegate wondered if, at the heart of this, there’s a discussion about democracy and what we mean by democracy and how education in our democracy actually works; who owns what, who votes for what?

Hugo explored a couple of bad ideas in his view; (1) when a school is seen as failing, they change the one person who doesn’t do any teaching, the head, and it’s assumed that will solve the problem and (2) we’ve social workers spending 60% of their time in front of computers producing a chain of documentation and many teachers, many outstanding teachers, have either quit or are about to quit because of the evidence stream they must provide. Now there has to be accountability but, he asked, how do you get the right amount?  Steven Cox from Sirus Educational asked; what bad idea would you abandon and what good idea would you put in its place?  Finally, Chris Husbands, joined in the questions to ask Allan Foulds, the head teacher on the panel, whether his governing body stops him going off on a frolic?

Panel debates on these themes with Mary Bousted (ATL), Allan Foulds (ASCL), Angela McFarlane, Emma Knight, John Dunford and John Bangs begin on Transcript Page 56; explore at your own pace with the Virtual Summit Experience (request more information from this contact page)


Session 3: What bad idea would you abandon?  

  • Allan Foulds (ASCL):  Get Rid of Plans for Key Stage 2 Re-Tests in Year 7
  • Mary Bousted (ATL): The Way Specifications Come Through Show Ofqual Lacks Understanding of Schools
  • John Dunford: Decoupling AS from A Level is a terrible idea. The eBac is also a lousy idea. And solutions? Put in Place Something Close to the Tomlinson 14-19 Recommendations
  • Angela McFarlane: Speaking personally, it’s a Bad Idea There Isn’t a Required and Recognised Entry Qualification for Teaching
  • John Bangs: Get Rid of Ofsted, It’s a Bad System According to OECD
  • Emma Knights: The Current Education Bill is Another Layer of Very Crude Accountability


SESSION 4: How might Politics in Education Evolve?

Mick Waters: What is the purpose of education? Mick spends three days a week in schools, one of which he’s teaching, and joined this Summit to explore the purpose of education, who decides it and what factors drive our system. School inspections, he suggested, lead to ‘model pupils’ not the ‘well-rounded individuals’ politicians say they want. Mick reflected that politicians aim to convince the population they’re moving in a certain direction and there’s a challenge for us in calling them to account. Deregulation, coupled with measuring the wrong things leads to withering and real drivers become; test data from the oldest students (often suspect), league table position (becoming less important), progress eight and phonics, inspection (often suspect as it’s based on suspect data) and market driven award bodies seducing schools to use their system, to satisfy the game. Students become the currency of this system and testing is about measuring effectiveness rather than helping the child. Obsessions about evidence take students away from opportunities our own curriculum says they should have. In the real world, people do work that matters – how can students follow their own pathway inside a school system, rather than living in a made up world we’ve created, in the name of state education?

Professor Mick Waters: Deregulation While Valuing Test Data From The Oldest Students Leads to System Withering

Jonathan Simons: What is the role of politics in education? Jonathan brought his considered view on the purpose of politics in education. It’s clear, he began, that politicians have a tough gig; there’s little time to engage the public, let alone convince us on their arguments about policy. Jonathan described education as inextricably linked with the most fundamental discussions we have as a civilization; to ask what education is for is to ask what society is for. Education may be the most important question for public values based discussion, to inform public policy. Looking from this angle, Jonathan invites us to see increased disillusionment with our system of Government as a symptom of its success. Within a vast number of countries a Summit like this, to question the status quo, would be a luxury. Our democratic politics has served us to the point where we take for granted that, whatever changes, our rights will not be compromised. We are free, therefore, to feel disillusionment and lead a discourse about the issues. He proposed the question we need to ask is not ‘would we start from here?’ but, given we are here, were next?

Jonathan Simons (Policy Exchange): Disillusionment with Government as a Symptom of its Success

Nic Dakin: Labour’s vision for education- Nic is an ex-teacher so, jokingly, pointed out how his most recent job change involved a drop from the most trusted profession to the least, according to data Jonathan presented. Reflecting on Mick’s ideas, Nic expressed that schools are very good at delivering what they are asked to deliver, though he agreed some things that matter aren’t measured; there’s risk and tension there. For Nic and his new shadow education team, a vision for 2020 is far away, so he explored what’s happening now. The Labour sponsored academy programme was to help a small number of schools and never about turning all schools into academies. More teachers left the profession than joined this year and the number of teachers quitting is the highest since records began.

Nic Dakin MP (Labour Shadow Minister for Schools): There’s Risk and Tension When Things That Matter Aren’t Measured


Where do we take Education from here?

Mary commented that Jonathan’s presentation seemed to be in extremes; either experts or politicians and given either, Jonathan preferred politicians.  “Isn’t there a middle way?” she asked before agreeing that politics can’t be taken out of education, but stating that we want good politics in education. Miranda Dodd from the University of Southampton was glad the teacher recruitment and retention has been raised and wondered what politicians can usefully do with that issue and where they should step back. John, the Assistant Principal at Midhurst Rother College, asked the panel’s view on stage rather than age in education.

Anne picked up on Jonathan’s statistic about environmentalism being only of interest when countries get rich and wondered why we are looking at the status quo instead of looking ahead. She stated that we are already seeing environmental migrants and made the point that no one has yet talked about the purpose of education for a future we don’t yet understand.  Ian Potter recalled Mick Water’s slide about the types of learners and the ‘teacher pleaser’ idea which led into his question: does the panel feel we’re possibly creating a generation of school leavers who are politician pleasers?

Roman, a university student, asked how our standardised exam system makes sense if we want well rounded individuals instead of ‘teacher pleasers’? These contradictions, he suggested, make it difficult for students to understand what school, university and businesses actually want. Another delegate asked: would you support cross-party policy making? John joined in with information that Canada has a council for ministers of education, Germany has the council of ministers of the Lander, which led to his question; would you support the council for ministers of the United Kingdom who share practice across the four UK countries? Finally, Leah K Stewart asked: What’s the biggest specific positive change you’d personally like to see in education over the next fifteen years?

Panel debates on these themes with Mark Anderson (Pearson), Henry Stewart (LSN), Laura McInerney, Jonathan Simons, Nic Dakin and Mick Waters begin on Transcript Page 75; explore at your own pace with the Virtual Summit Experience (request more information from this contact page)

Session 4:  What’s the biggest specific positive change you’d like to see in education over the next 15 years? 

  • Mark Anderson (Pearson): A Period of Stability, Predictability and Absence of Change
  • Henry Stewart (LSN): To Have a Culture of Joy and Enthusiasm
  • Mick Waters: Turn Ofsted into an Organisation That Looks at Whether a School is Good Enough or Not, That’s It
  • Jonathan Simons: To Celebrate Stability – Talk About Small Changes Instead of Big Ones
  • Nic Dakin: More Interaction With the Workplace
  • Laura McInerney: More Transparency

At the end of this day, I took to the stage to say the following (copied from the event transcript):

“It’s been a privilege over the last several months to get to know Heidi and see how she has worked so creatively and courageously to bring us this summit today, which has really expanded my idea of what is going on in education and what’s up for conversation. And I think Heidi will second this that we hope, and I really hope, the conversations started here don’t end here, but that we each go and invite other people in to this big dialogue and to share all the ideas that are really up for debate, so this continues.” 

And I mean every word of it. Thank you for your dedication to education and society for reading these summaries of the Politics in Education Summit.

If you’d like to find out more about the Virtual Summit Experience and explore the full original transcripts and power-point slides just request more information from this contact page.