A positive spin on the truth

18th February 2000 at 00:00
The Teacher Training Agency has been accused of watering down criticisms. David Budge reports.

TEACHER Training Agency officials stand accused of trying to suppress or water down criticisms that emerged from one of their biggest consultation exercises.

The accusations are levelled at the agency in a highly-detailed analysis of the consultation programme that it conducted before producing the new Standards for the Award of Qualified Teacher Status. The study, to be published in the British Educational Research Journal in June, will provide fresh ammunition for those who complain that education policy-making in Britain is unduly covert and undemocratic.

Its authors, Ian Hextall and Professor Pat Mahony of the University of Surrey, Roehampton, have scrutinised hundreds of documents generated by the 1997 consultation exercise. The TTA staged seven regional conferences and sent out 10,000 consultation documents but the researchers conclude that the expensive exercise made little difference to the final outcome.

"It is perhaps legitimate to ask what the time, energy and expense of the consultation actually achieved, whether the public money expended can be justified and whether an unrepresentative, unelected body such as the TTA is best-placed to develop standards for teachers," the researchers say.

Hextall and Mahony believe that the relationship between the Department for Education and Employment and the agency has been typical of the policy-makingimplementation split that other British policy analysts have criticised. As one TTA officer told them, the Education Secretary (at that time Gillian Shephard) "decides how she wants it then she says to us, go away and develop the strategy for it".

But the researchers argue that policy-making and implementation cannot be separated. Policy is "re-made and subverted" as officials attempt to put ministers' decisions into practice. They also claim that it is important to establish how the QTS criteria were drawn up, as they have also shaped the standards specified for induction, crossing the performance threshold and achieving advanced-skills status.

The TTA began the process of developing QTS standards by setting up a group that was said to represent teachers, headteachers, local authorities and higher education institutions. One TTA officer said they were then "locked away in some hotel for a few days, brainstorming what a set of standards might look like, how they might be organised".

The draft document that emerged from these discussions was revised following talks within the TTA and four working groups drawn from education authorities, higher education institutions, the TTA Board and educational interest groups.

Hextall and Mahony question the methods by which working group members were selected - "by recommendation, prior knowledge or familiarity through networking, a process that has been criticised as tending to sponsor 'people like us'". But they have even more misgivings about the subsequent consultation exercise and the way that criticism of the TTA's proposals was glossed over.

They discovered that chairs of conference discussion groups had been issued with model replies to likely questions. "There is nothing unusual or even necessarily wrong with an organisation ensuring that its staff are all singing from the same song-sheet," Hextall and Mahony say "However, it might be argued that such an activity begins to blur the distinction between 'selling' policy and consulting on it."

The researchers studied the notes that were taken during 49 of these conference group discusssions. They also examined 447 responses to the 10,000 consultation documents.

In their opinion, the first draft of the interim report on the consultations reflected the balance of opinions in these documents. But this report - produced for the TTA Board by a team of consultants - was then subjected to several redrafts by officers.

Before passing updated drafts to one another, the officers sometimes made comments in the margins such as:

"Some of the responses reveal so clearly the 'unreconstructed nature' of HEIs that their inclusion can only be helpful. I have, however, toned down the text by removing ..."(the last line had been cut off in the photocopy).

"...and the changes I have suggested should strike the right note. On some points respondents are condemned out of their own mouths and these we can use with ministers - on others they are right."

After reading the redrafted interim report one of the consultants wrote to senior TTA officers and pointed to:

the addition of 12 new points whose provenance was unclear (almost all were favourable to the TTA's position);

the appearance of 14 glosses commenting - often disparagingly - on the responses from a TTA perspective;

the toning down, or suppression, of some criticisms and concerns; and

the introduction of three outright errors.

Some of these concerns were addressed in subsequent redrafts but Hextall and Mahony say that in producing the final report, TTA officials systematically replaced the word "criticism" with "comment".

The Roehampton study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also suggests that TTA officers were economical with the truth. The "very small minority" reported as having "disagreed in principle" with the TTA's proposals included the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the Association of University Teachers. "This raises the issue of how responses are weighted," Hextall and Mahony say.

They acknowledge that it might be wrong to conclude that all TTA consultations have been as flawed but they believe that the QTS exercise represents a lost opportunity for a genuine debate on the nature of teaching.

"Furthermore, the confusion ... over who is influencing the generation of policy - the TTA Board, the officers or even unelected persons in 'think tanks' - does not make for good democracy, any more than the secrecy surrounding working groups sits well with notions of 'open government'."

"Consultation and the management of consent: Standards for Qualified Teacher Status", by Ian Hextall and Pat Mahony, will appear in the June issue of the British Educational Research Journal.

HOW THE CRITICISM WAS DILUTED

What the consultants said "Hardly any respondents were fundamentally opposed to the standards although there was a good deal of critical comment about various aspects of them."

The TTA's version

"The balance of responses was in favour of the standards in principle; very few respondents were fundamentally opposed to them. The many detailed comments about various aspects of the standards were often set in a context of overall support."


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