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A 'crazy' civil service and dons who don't tweet – why ed policy isn't always evidence-based

Ever wondered where education policy-making can go wrong? From a “bonkers” civil service structure to a dearth of useful research, a former government adviser has lifted the lid on the problems faced by ministers and their aides. 

Sam Freedman worked with Michael Gove, education secretary, both in opposition and at the Department for Education.

Earlier this month he spoke at the researchED conference about the difficulties that await those in government who want to base their policy on evidence.

“Politicians are busy people,” he said. “They don’t have time to read the research themselves, they don’t have time to spend a lot of time thinking about policy making.”

This made ministers “really reliant” on the people around them who filtered the available information, and that was where some of the problems lay.

Mr Freedman said their most important information filters were government officials. “There are really brilliant people in the civil service,” he said. “But the system, the structure of the Department, not just the Department for Education but all government departments, is bonkers, it’s completely crazy.

“It is relic of when the civil service was first created and it makes no sense at all if you are trying to operate in an evidence-based world.”

He said the best officials, the “high-fliers”, were moved around every two to three years, “so they never have an opportunity to stay in any given area and develop expertise”. But if someone had been in a post for ten years it was “actually quite a sign they are not considered very good”.

So there were no policy specialists and a lot of officials had no statistics or economics training, he said.

“They don’t have any expertise in the area they are talking about and they don’t have the training to understand the available evidence,” Mr Freedman said. “So it is really, possibly the worst way to use what are often a very good collection of individuals."

He added that the statisticians that were there were kept in a different part of the building away from the policy teams. “The geeks need to be added to the Sir Humphrey’s,” he recommended.

Mr Freedman said ministers and their aides also suffered from a lack of external UK research on key education policy questions.

He gave the example of sponsored academies – an important priority for both the current and previous governments.

“There is very little evidence about their effectiveness despite the policy being 10 or 11 years old,” he said. He had only found two research papers – both from the same university department - on sponsored academies.

Instead he had become very reliant on more than 200 American academic studies into US charter schools. “It is good it is there, and helpful,” Mr Freedman said. “But obviously America is a different country, there are different contexts, the environment is different. It is not ideal to be having to focus so much on evidence about another country.”

He also pointed to the difficulty that the Education Endowment Foundation was having in finding enough UK education researchers with the right skills to carry out its studies.

Meanwhile the academics that were around were often not very good at getting their message to politicians and their advisers and officials. Most were focusing on academic journals rather than the social media which would allow them to interact directly with decision makers, he said.

“I still don’t think many people realise that pretty much everybody in Westminster uses Twitter all the time,” Mr Freedman said. “I just find it strange that people who have spent years often doing very valuable work that they have sweated blood over and there is a politician right there that they could talk to and they don’t.”   

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