Getting policy right is about hitting the sweet spot between different requirements

By David Russell

The highlight of my professional year is the SET annual conference in Birmingham (see report on page 24). The feedback from members is almost universally positive, and the buzz and collegiality is amazing on the day. Do come next year, whether you’re a returner or a new explorer! I was very happy to give an input on a topic dear to my

heart: how policy is made. Having worked on both sides of the policy/practice divide, I believe that both would be greatly enhanced if there were more mutual understanding of what professionals do on either side of this line. I spend a lot of my time talking to policy-

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makers about how things play out on the ground; the conference was a chance to turn and face the other way and talk to engaged practitioners about how policy is made. There are many theoretical models of how policy is made. But here is a simple one. Good policy-making happens in the centre of a Venn diagram of overlapping policy ideas. In one circle are all the policies that would meet the political ambitions of the government of the day. In the second circle are all the ideas which can actually be delivered in the real world, given the facts on the ground (for example, the size and nature of the workforce and the distribution of learners). And in the third circle are all the ideas that have some evidence to suggest they will actually work, i.e. achieve the desired effect in the long term. The first task – harder than it might seem – is working out what the options are in these various ‘design spaces’. And the work policy-makers have to do to work out what exists in each circle is different in each case. To work out what will take the political trick, you have to talk to the politicians (often difficult to access, but special advisers can help). To work out what is deliverable, you have to talk to stakeholders and people on the ground who deliver things – there are lots of them and they won’t all agree, and they all have


their own agendas too, so you have to filter that out as best you can. And finally, to work out what might actually work, you have to read evidence and data, evaluations, and talk to researchers and those with a long policy and delivery memory. Only then are you ready to start the analysis of what might be in the overlapping zone – which possible policy ideas stand a good chance of being successful on all three measures.


“SET’s annual conference was a chance to

talk to engaged practitioners about how policy is made.”

Once policy has been made, then begins the task of implementing it. Of course, implementation has to be considered in the design phase, but the truth is that it is often not considered enough (I know, this revelation will be shocking to many teachers!). The reason for this, in my view, is that the civil service tends to divide people up into skill groups, rather than segment by domain-specific expertise. In other words, ‘policy people’ are seen as different from ‘delivery people’. This division is seen as more fundamental

than a division between, say, ‘education people’ and ‘welfare people’ or ‘immigration people’. That is not so say some individuals do not stay put and

gain real depth of insight and expertise in their policy areas; but moving around is very common, and not seen as a problem. Imagine if your doctor swapped jobs with your dentist, and your dentist took over from your teacher, with your teacher becoming your care worker?! Having said all this, the thing I would emphasise the most is that everyone involved in the policy-making process is doing their level best within the constraints they are under to improve public outcomes. Nobody goes into public service to make other people’s lives harder, and the job of working with practitioners to get policy right is taken very seriously indeed. So my view is that teachers and leaders in the sector should take heart that if they can find the right language in which to engage, they will be listened to. And to find a common language, all parties need to understand each other’s roles, cultures, aims and issues. Just like teachers do with their students every day.

David Russell is chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation and the Society for Education and Training.

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