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And How to Avoid Them in the Future
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Education policies should drive success and equity but in many countries they are failing to do so. Situating the cases of England and Australia within broader global policy trends, this book critically analyses what has gone wrong.

The authors draw on extensive research in education to review the impact of multiple policies on students, teachers and schools, with a focus on communities where children and young people need education most. They issue a fundamental challenge to the policy orthodoxies of recent decades and set out a blueprint for making education both better and fairer.

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Many people reading this book will know a lot about education in England or in Australia, but perhaps not about both. This chapter sets the scene.

In an era of international ‘policy borrowing’ and ‘policy convergence’ (Ball, 1999, 2019; Sahlberg, 2015), there are many similarities between their education policies. We argue that politicians in both countries have made the same wrong turns and are dealing with some of the same consequences. Yet there are important differences in the structures and organisation of the systems themselves. These enable, or constrain, particular policy choices, creating so-called ‘path dependencies’ in the policy process, and they mean that policies play out in different ways. So, we start by setting out some of the essential characteristics of these education policy landscapes.1

A fundamental issue is who makes decisions about schooling. England2 has a highly centralised system. Central government, in the form of the Department for Education (DfE), sets teachers’ pay scales and professional standards. Systems of assessment and qualification are national, as is the curriculum, and school inspection, although these functions are managed by semi-independent organisations (see Table 2.1). Until relatively recently, there was also a strong role for local education authorities (LEAs). This has been much reduced by the creation of autonomous schools that all report to the DfE. The funding system is now also based on a single national formula. So, the system is simultaneously becoming more centralised and more subject to hyper-local variation as schools can make more of their own decisions.

The Commonwealth of Australia is a federal system of government.

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This chapter is the first of three in which we set out the problems manifest in our current schooling systems. We put the biggest problem first – schools are becoming dominated by tests, in ways that are detrimental to children and young people and limit education rather than improving it.

In England, children do external tests from their first year of schooling. They take a phonics check in Year 1, Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) for English and maths at the end of Year 2 and again in Year 6, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or equivalent examinations at the end of Year 11, and Advanced (‘A’) Levels or equivalent at the end of Year 13. There are also standard teacher assessments at the end of the Foundation Stage (age about five).

In Australia, assessment regimes vary across state jurisdictions. However, in the earlier grades (3, 5, 7, and 9) ACARA conducts national assessments in literacy and numeracy through NAPLAN. The Year 12 end-of-school record of achievement is determined by each jurisdiction and may include a range of academic and vocational subjects assessed through a variety of means including examinations, performance tasks and portfolios. On completion of schooling, eligible students may also receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), which ranks them relative to others in their state or territory for university admission purposes.

The ways in which these assessment regimes shape the practice of teachers’ and children’s experiences of school has been the subject of numerous academic studies, enquiries and reviews by parliamentary committees, independent review bodies, teacher unions and others.

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One thing about which there seems to be near universal consensus among education olicy makers is that education systems should rovide equally for all children and provide the opportunity of success for all.

This holds whether you start from the position of the United Nations (UN) goal to ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (United Nations, 2015) or from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29, which states that ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full’ (UNICEF, 1992). It holds if you start from goals to reduce inequalities, enhance social mobility and foster social justice, or if you start from economic aspirations to increase human capital, maximise productivity and spend less on welfare. Inclusive and equitable education is, in theory, a ‘no-brainer’.

But it isn’t happening. In fact, in far too many cases, children and young people who need the education system most are actually getting less from it than their more advantaged peers. That uncomfortable fact has long been recognised, at least by sociologists of education if not always by politicians. But there is also evidence that the system is increasingly marginalising children who in different ways rely on it most. Instead of compensating for other injustices, the education system may increasingly be making them worse.

One major factor in the production of educational divisions is the structure of school systems, including differences between and within sectors that make up these systems. This may seem too obvious even to state.

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Many teachers say they joined the profession to make a difference, perhaps because they themselves experienced the transformative influence of a good teacher or tried their hand at a less fulfilling occupation. Whatever the reason, making a difference in the lives of young people is widely valued as a reason for joining and staying in a challenging profession. Take, for example, Belinda Lyons-Lee (2019), who took a year off teaching and became a published author. Despite the fewer demands and less pressure of her writing career, she returned to teaching because ‘I needed to reconnect with my passion of introducing these teenagers to the power of a narrative to change a life and then introduce them to the skills so they could write their own powerful narrative that would change lives’ (Lyons-Lee, 2019).

One of the most important functions of schooling is to help each young person to develop the narrative of their life, even when there are interruptions and when they face barriers beyond their control. Teachers’ work fundamentally affects young people’s experiences of schooling, but more than this it affects the likelihood that they will enjoy and succeed not only at school, but also in life.

In this chapter, we argue that in England and Australia, teachers are making less of a difference than they could, because of the ways in which their work is changing. Instead of concentrating their efforts on teaching, and on reviewing and developing their pedagogical practice, they are burdened by administrative demands associated with monitoring and activities are described by a teacher in Comber and Nixon’s (2009) study as ‘meaningless bullshit destined for a cupboard in someone’s office’ (p 339).

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The first policy move we describe as a mistake is the decision to rely increasingly on a market model of school provision. By this we mean a suite of changes including expanding the range of non-state providers, making schools self-managing, requiring them to compete for students and funding, and encouraging and enabling parents to choose schools.

Many countries have moved in this direction to a greater or lesser extent in recent decades. The results are rarely free markets. High levels of state management, subsidy and regulation limit market activity. So economists tend to call markets for schooling ‘quasi-markets’. But they still differ substantially from fully state-run models, where governments provide schools, employ teachers and allocate places.

In this chapter, we briefly describe the different paths towards marketisation that governments in England and Australia have taken, and the rationales for these changes. We also review evidence of policy effects, concentrating on markets themselves rather than on the mechanisms that have sprung up to govern them (such as performance measures), which we cover in Chapter 7.

Marketising policies in England and Australia started from different points but have evolved in similar ways.

In Australia, the ascendency of choice as the driver of education markets is somewhat ironically linked to a social-democratic moment in policy making. The Whitlam government (1972–75) overcame an ideological objection to providing state aid to non-government schools in order to support severely under-resourced schools, mainly Catholic parish schools. Whitlam established the Schools Commission that set about classifying schools according to need. The commission did not recommend funding already adequately resourced schools but the compromises that allowed the bill to pass through parliament enabled all schools, even elite private schools, to receive some government funding.

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The second policy move that we describe as a mistake is the over-focus in the education system on producing ever higher test scores.

Test scores should have a place in education policy. They can tell us about what is being achieved and how it matches up to what our societies and economies need from schooling. They can highlight groups of students who are doing less well out of the system and indicate where extra investment is needed. They can inform decisions about the effectiveness of different educational practices and help teachers to work effectively. Most people also acknowledge that students’ scores can also serve useful purposes in holding schools to account, representing the interests of children, young people, parents and communities and ensuring that public money is being spent well and wisely. However, over recent decades, test scores have come to dominate education policy decisions. They have become the reasoning arguments or ‘logos’ of educational policy making, in a shift described by policy sociologist Professor Bob Lingard as ‘policy as numbers’ (Lingard, 2011, p 356). In this chapter, we trace this shift in England and Australia. We explain why it has come about and why the evidence demonstrates that it is a mistake.

In his key book on education policy, The Education Debate (Ball, 2017), Professor Stephen Ball identifies the start of the ‘policy as numbers’ phenomenon in England in the creation of the government’s Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) in 1975. APU was tasked with developing methods of assessing and monitoring achievement and identifying the incidence of underachievement – a controversial move at the time as it was seen to erode teachers’ responsibility for curriculum development and assessment.

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Our third mistake is the over-prescription of teachers’ work.

There is no doubt that teaching is the central activity of schooling – the ‘flipside’ of learning. It is rightly a major focus of education policy, not just because teachers’ salaries are by far the biggest budget item in school spending. The value of good teachers to children’s learning is almost universally acknowledged and they are critical to the functioning of society. This was patently demonstrated during the global COVID-19 pandemic when teachers rapidly pivoted to support children learning from home, while also keeping schools open for the children of essential workers.

In the past three decades in England, and for a shorter time in Australia, the overall direction of policies to improve the quality of teaching has been to standardise both what is taught and how it is taught. These moves have had some beneficial effects, including the explicit naming of valued learning outcomes and knowledge, and the potential for the breadth and complexity of teachers’ work to be identified and recognised. However, combined with the effects of market pressures and ‘datafication’ (Chapters 6 and 7), they have limited the professional judgement of teachers and narrowed their pedagogical repertoires so that teachers can make less difference, not more. In this chapter we explain what has happened and how the balance came to tip too far.

Education in England has long been characterised by a contest for control between government, teachers and, to a certain extent, universities and their examination boards (McCulloch, 1993). The period from 1988 to 2010 saw substantial shifts in favour of government.

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The fourth mistake that we identify is a failure to understand the causes of educational inequalities.

As described in Chapter 2, the period covered by this book has been one in which, although living standards overall have risen, inequalities have widened, labour market insecurity has increased, economic opportunities have narrowed in certain ‘left-behind’ places, and global conflicts and disasters have brought new disadvantaged populations to under-resourced urban neighbourhoods. In these circumstances, educational inequalities would be expected to widen.

Policies to create more equitable systems have featured prominently at some points in English and Australian policy history. But the approaches taken have been inconsistent and sometimes contradictory. Mostly what has been done has been insufficient, sometimes misdirected or counterproductive. In this chapter, we describe what has been done and why, and explain why overall it has failed to achieve the desired result.

In England, policies to address inequalities have a long history but have taken very different forms. One distinctive strand, favoured by Labour governments, has been top-up programmes and funds directed at disadvantaged places and/or groups. These started in the 1960s with Educational Priority Areas (EPAs) and additional funding to support education for EAL pupils. They were substantially increased during the Labour government’s 13 years in power from 1997, with Education Action Zones (EAZs), Excellence in Cities (EiC) and City Challenges, as well as additional grants for interventions such as learning mentors and reading catch-up. In 2002, Teach First was established to attract high-achieving graduates into teaching in disadvantaged schools (see Lupton and Obolenskaya [2013] for a fuller review).

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Our fifth mistake relates to the nature of education policy making and the characteristics of policy processes.

Our central argument is that for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, educational policy making has become increasingly divorced from knowledge of educational theory and practice. This is not to say that the knowledge of teachers, school leaders, academics and researchers who study teaching, learning and other aspects of the educational day-to-day is the only kind of knowledge that should count in education policy. As with many of the issues we have discussed, the problem is not that everything that has happened is bad, but that the balance has tipped too far in one direction, making it more likely that the wrong decisions will be made and that established policies will continue to be followed even when the evidence is clear that they are mistaken.

In this chapter, we draw on research about policy, rather than about specific policies as we have done in earlier chapters. We describe some of the problems with education policy-making processes in England and Australia, how they have come about, and why we think they are getting in the way of making education better and fairer.

In their book on social policy mistakes in England, King and Crewe (2014) identify 12 factors that lead to ‘policy blunders’. Five of these come under the category of ‘human errors’: cultural disconnect (policy makers not understanding that other people’s lives are not like their own); group-think; prejudice and pragmatism; operational disconnect (policy makers not understanding how policies will play out on the ground); and panic, symbols and spin.

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