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Impact of coalition's school reforms 'will take decades' to understand

The full impact of the coalition’s school reforms will not be understood for decades, the Department for Education’s former permanent secretary has warned.

Sir David Bell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Reading who previously served as the DfE's top civil servant for six years, described many of the changes, such as the recent overhaul of GCSEs and A-levels, as an “experiment…that we do not actually know will work”.

The amount of change that has taken place over the past five years means that there is greater need than ever for a period of “stability” in the school system, Sir David adds.

His comments are made in a piece written for The Conversation, in which he gives a “health check” on the coalition’s education policies ahead of the forthcoming general election.

Sir David, who previously called for ministers to scrap A-levels, warns that making such big changes, particularly to the curriculum and qualifications, would “always have unexpected consequences”, adding that it was “simply too early” to tell whether the changes would work.

He also says that the country is only just beginning to see the effects of the changes brought in by the former Labour government in 1997.

“We are only just about able to assess the impact of the previous Labour government’s schools reforms, including the London Challenge, City Academies and Sure Start,” Sir David writes. “This summer’s A-level cohort is the living embodiment of ‘Blair’s generation’, having been born in 1997 – but it will take 20 to 30 years to properly understand whether they are truly socially mobile.”

With such long lag times between policy implementation and results, the academic believes it is time that education policy formation was “depoliticised” and has called for a moratorium on any further legislation in the next Parliament.

“So it is time for the politicians to be brave. There is something in the air in Westminster that compels ministers to meddle, to act as commentators not leaders, to be driven by short-term political tactics not long-term strategy,” he writes.

And he adds: “So my plea for the next set of ministers is not to go back to square one after the election… We need to base policy decisions on clear, hard-headed evidence, data and analysis, not ministerial whims.”

Related stories:

Scrap A-levels, former top civil servant says – 9 January, 2015

Gove claims his education reforms driven by a "moral purpose"  – 1 April, 2014

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