Why is UK educational policy so confident, yet so incompetent?

Educational reform in the UK over many governments has been systematically irrational: policies have been imposed that directly contradict the most authoritative evidence. This has puzzled and angered me for some time. I’d like to know why this happens and look forward to your comments below.

First of all I’d like you to imagine you have been appointed Secretary of State for Education in the new European country of Rational-mania where government is unfailingly rational.   How would you proceed? (I will later compare this with policy in the UK where we see the near opposite.)


Your rational education policy

As Education chief you would seek out summaries of research on the factors that affect student achievement, looking for factors that affect achievement most.  Being rational you would realise that systematic summaries of research are more authoritative than any individual study and would turn to these for guidance. (See my blog the uses and abuses of evidence in education)

You would find that:

  • what teachers do has a very big influence on student achievement.
  • what leaders do has some influence but only if they affect what teachers do in classrooms.
  • the type of school has very little influence on student achievement (perhaps surprising)
  • the level of education of the teacher has next to no impact on their effectiveness.



You would then conclude that your job as a policy wonk is to find some way of improving what teachers do.

You would look at summaries of research on what teachers do, looking for what has the biggest effect on achievement, and come across the work of Robert Marzano, John Hattie and others, including the central importance of formative assessment as described for example in the work of Dylan Wiliam.

References: Buy from Guardian books not Amazon as the Guardian pays taxes needed to pay teacher’s salaries

John Hattie: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Visible-Learning-John-Hattie/dp/0415476186

Dylan Wiliam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3HRvFsZHoo

Marzano: https://katiedevine.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/classroom-instruction-that-works_pdf.pdf

See also my book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Evidence-Based-Teaching-Practical-Approach-Edition/dp/1408504529

You would ensure that teacher training was mainly focussed on these highly effective teaching approaches, methods, strategies and techniques. After all they work exceptionally well in pretty much every context yet are not widely used.

Then you would ask how policy could improve the teaching of existing teachers. You would find Helen Timperley’s summary of all high quality research on effective CPD, and discover that there is only one way to improve teaching to the point that student achievement is subsequently improved. This approach, which I call Supported Experiments, has a huge impact on student achievement if done well – in outline:


  1. teachers identify the main problems and difficulties they have as teachers, and their students have as learners.
  1. the teachers then study best practice in solving these problems
  1. the teachers decide on one strategy or more to address these difficulties
  1. each teacher uses a trial and error or action research approach, repeatedly trialling and improving this strategy.
  1. teachers meet every month or so to discuss their attempts at using their chosen strategy, and to discuss how to improve their use of it. This improvement is discussed at the next meeting so the cycle repeats. (Teachers are learners too and need repeated practice, encouragement and support; who would have thought it!)


Timperley: http://www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/Educational_Practices/EdPractices_18.pdf

Supported Experiments: http://geoffpetty.com/for-team-leaders/supported-experiments/


When you study the education systems of the most successful countries as judged by international comparisons, Singapore, Finland, and so on, you would be pleased to discover that they in effect use Timperley’s simple model. You would also notice that they make little or no use of OFSTED style inspection systems, graded observations, SAT like assessments, or league tables. Timperley found no evidence internationally that accountability systems improved what teachers did and warned against them, so you would decide not to use these.

Okay, so much for Rational-mania’s education policy: how does the UK’s compare?


Andreas Schleicher of PISA: https://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_schleicher_use_data_to_build_better_schools?language=en


The UK’s education policy.

Our education policies fall into a puzzling pattern, where the reformers root around with meticulous determination to excavate the factors with the least effect on student achievement, the more irrelevent to achievement the better, and then they spend billions on implementing these hopeless policies, whilst by comparison almost ignoring the teacher effect. Let’s look at a few examples, I can’t deal with them all, there are just too many, there are very few exceptions.


  • The last few governments have put enormous emphasis on turning schools into academies. School type has very little effect on student achievement compared to the very large effect that ‘what teachers do’ can have on attainment (Hattie 2009). But academisation has been pursued with billions of funding over decades. (Some research shows that academies improved attainment a bit in the early years, but not by remotely the huge effect that changing teaching could have had).  Its not enough for policy to improve outcomes, it must improve outcomes MORE than alternative policies of the same cost.)  The respected statistics programme on Radio 4 found that academies do not raise acheivement: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074zy97
  • To train as a teacher you must have a good degree 2:1 or better. There is no evidence that a better degree improves a teacher’s teaching. Now we have a teacher shortage.
  • Government funding for post-16 student places has been conditional on pupils retaking GCSEs in English and maths if they don’t have a C grade. Retaking a year in school is one of the most ineffective educational strategies ever discovered. In international research it’s called ‘retention’ and its third from the bottom in Hattie’s list of well over 100 influences on achievement. It’s so disasterous it actually reduces attainiment. Retaking GCSEs isn’t the same as repeating a school year, but its close enough to ring alarm bells. In the past colleges decided that if GCSE had failed for a student, it would be best to try another strategy, and students studied ‘Functional Skills’, which integrated English and maths into vocational studies. Sensible, – but colleges are now bribed away from this strategy. http://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/
  • The effect of a school building on learning is tiny compared to the effect of pedagogy. Tony Blair’s government spent tens of billions on building new schools and colleges and relatively ignored pedagogy. Okay we like nice new schools and don’t want asbestos in our buildings, but this policy could never improve achievement significantly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_Schools_for_the_Future
  • All the highest performing educational systems give great emphasis on the professional independence of teachers and on their CPD. They ensure teachers have time to get together in meetings to discuss how learning can be improved, and policy makers see this as the main improvement mechanism. Non of these countries have inspection regiems, graded observation, national testing, or league tables, etc. They believe in trust rather than control. So our governments have for decades adopted with vigour the very strategies the most effective education systems abhor. Andreas Schleicher: https://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_schleicher_use_data_to_build_better_schools?language=en
  • ‘Assessment for Learning (AfL)’ was a policy intended to improve formative assessment. This looked as if it might at last buck the trend and improve teaching and achievement. However, in an astonishing denial and reversal of the research findings on formative assessment, the policy makers ensured this huge policy initiative did not focus on improving learning, but instead on measuring and recording it. This was in flagrant disregard of the advice of Black and Wiliam, whose research showed that measuring and recording learning had a tiny effect compared to actually improving the learning. https://www.tes.com/article.aspx?storycode=6261847


Why do policy makers unerringly seek out ineffective policies, and even when gifted with a great policy like AfL, deliberately change it to make it less effective?   Some would say that our policy makers are just stupid and ignorant. Tempting, but that can’t be it, they are reasonably intelligent and are educated, and if they were stupid they would alight on a good policy by accident sometimes. But this almost never happens. Policy is systematically disasterous. What is going on?

I will post my guess later, but in the meantime would be interested in yours.

11 thoughts on “Why is UK educational policy so confident, yet so incompetent?

  1. I think that there is a serious question mark over the intentions of our Government. Our last Education Secretary was a former Journalist; our new one, a former Lawyer. There is a sunstantial lack of knowledge/experience of education from policy makers.
    Also an educational system which consistently supports inequality, ensures that education remains to serve the elite.

    • Secretary of States are not usually experienced in the domain they work in, but if that were so, you’d think they’d take advice and follow the evidence. I’m interested in why they don’t. Inequality is best dealt with by using teaching approaches that benefit most those with least achievement, like formative assessment for example, but we don’t see that!

  2. Brilliantly written Geoff. Echoes of Jonathan Swift in your debunking of authority’s stupidity. Just one thing, how about including some cognitive science (which we used to know as cognitive psychology)? While based on laboratory experiments, this can be a strength rather than a weakness as the results are regularly replicated and are not subject to a variety of contextual factors found in wildly different cultures. That said, I am working with two young cog sci professors who regularly go from laboratory to classroom to check on the applicability of their findings. While the current re-discovery of the central place of memory is not everything, it is more, I feel, than had been admitted previously. I think such an addition to your list of evidence against which policy is framed, would be more complete and, also, more inclusive of a greater range of teachers and their approach to teaching.

  3. I also like an observation Hattie makes. What politicians, journalists and parents want in a policy is something visible (academy status, smart uniform, marked homework, league table etc) while some of the most effective techniques are not visible outside the classroom (peer assessment, questioning, graphical approach etc).

  4. I remember that under Cameron / Ted Miliband both Government and Opposition systematically marginalised and excluded genuine ‘policy makers’ from the educational debate in favour of ministers and their offices, for multiple different political reasons that seemed to coincide and accelerate an existing trend. (I don’t know what’s happened since then, because I have left the United Kingdom, but looking at Geoff’s blog it doesn’t look optimistic!)

    • You’d think the Department for Education would be stuffed with people familiar with the evidence, and perhaps it is, though my own very very limited experience is that the top of the department is very ignorant and quite pleased about that. They certainly lack recent experience in schools and colleges. But do our politicians simply ignore expert briefings? Or don’t they good briefing in the first place? Blair instituted the idea of “Personalised Learning” at the instigation of a manaagement consultant called Charles Ledbetter or something like it. Teachers thought it was an educational construct and wondered what it meant, it wasn’t it was a political construct. The academic who wrote most about it eventually owned up to the Select Committee on education that the term meant next to nothing and wasn’t useful!

  5. The only logical answer to the conundrum of why successive governments have continually ignored the abundant evidence and advice on improving education seems to be that, at best, they don’t really care about educational standards in the public realm and seek to manage it as cheaply and expediently as possible; and worse, there is a core, but largely unstated belief, that education is for the elite and therefore is an expensive nuisance that should be privatised as just another commodity to benefit further that elite. One looks over the pond with horror at how US education has been systematically dumbed-down to produce generations of unquestioning, bewildered youngsters who wonder why they have no access to jobs, wealth and quality of life.
    Having read your hugely inspiring book, I can see that, with genuine political will and ambition to improve education for all, the answers are there for those who want to see them.

    • Well its seems strange that they wouldn’t care, I suppose it might also be that they have given up, or that the real focus of educational policy is to get re-elected rather than to actually improve things. Sad that these should be seen as incompatible. Thanks for your kind words about my book!

  6. It really does seem ludicrous that people make such big decisions that are so clearly flawed and cost so much money. Northern Ireland is currently establishing a new Education Authority. It should be an exciting time with a chance to bring about school improvement through effective CPD, to focus on what happens in classrooms from 9.00 till 3.30. Instead they focus on writing action plans, or meetings with the school principal/SLT to discuss issues. Part of the problem is that the model of school improvement is not determined by evidence of what will be effective, but by what they can do with limited resources, or by an individuals personal agenda. Until we recognise that teachers make the difference, standards will continue to slide in Northern Ireland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *