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Blog post

Echoes, mirrors and the need for dissenting voices to challenge closed-door policymaking

Christian Kerr, Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University

A recent blog post in Times Higher Education warned against the harmful effects of academics retreating into ‘echo chambers’ of their own making (Brooks, 2023). It argued that educationalists need to open up discussions to all stakeholders and include perspectives from outside their own field and discipline, and their own particular interest areas.

This is why we were delighted to contribute chapters from our diverse interests and our respective disciplines to the free e-book, Teacher Education in Crisis: The State, the Market and the Universities in England, launched at a symposium at the BERA 2023 Conference.

It is a diverse, interdisciplinary collection that includes a chapter by social work academics highlighting the parallels, similarities and networked connections between the reform agendas in teacher education and social work education, which are extensive and which have so far received insufficient attention. An interactive network-mapping exercise involving the co-authors of that chapter, shows these interlinkages through stark visual representation (Hanley et al., 2021). An important contribution of this book is to look beyond authors’ respective domains of expertise and recognise how teacher education reform is located within a wider ideological project involving the transfer of control of public services to private hands, and encompassing education more broadly, social work and social work education, and, indeed, childhood itself.

This agenda, and the networks that propel it, are well established, having held sway for the past 13 years (although the roots of the issues extend farther back with previous Labour and Conservative governments’ moves to open up public services to private businesses and entrepreneurial projects). As such, the foundations of this agenda are deep and ‘reform’, far from being a process of dynamic change, has become a tool of hegemony.

Dissent is currently under political and ideological assault in the UK (Kerr & Watts, 2021), and critics of government policy have been a particular target for those looking to quell and marginalise dissenting viewpoints. In the current Department for Education (DfE) policy landscape, including that surrounding teacher education reform, dissent is seen as dangerous and necessary to stamp out. A recent Observer report described government surveillance and ‘blacklisting’ of critics of DfE policy (Fazackerley, 2023a), which forms part of a concerted effort involving 15 departments to quell dissent over the government’s policy agendas (Fazackerley, 2023b). Concerns about closed-door policymaking at the DfE, and the resultant lack of depth and diversity of expertise, were recently underscored by a former top civil servant at the DfE (Slater, 2023).

‘Dissent is currently under political and ideological assault in the UK, and critics of government policy have been a particular target for those looking to quell and marginalise dissenting viewpoints.’

Margaret Ledwith, building on the work of Brazilian educationalist, Paulo Freire, speaks of dissenting voices that ‘[question] lived reality in order to understand the contradictions that are taken for granted’ (Ledwith, 2016, p. xi). Dissenters ‘hold up a mirror to their governing apparatus and thereby demonstrate their noncompliance’ (Falk, 2009, p. 245). Rather than being futile, dissent is instructive, educative and a vital component of a functioning, healthy democracy. In the face of the entrenched power dynamics of closed-door policymaking, such as we see at the DfE, there are few, if any, opportunities for those with dissenting views to be heard in the same spaces as those with the ear of government. Our voices aren’t in the tent, so we build our own (see, for example, Ellis, 2023) and promote debate on the ‘outside’.

We should not underestimate the value of speaking ‘from the fringes’. Attendees at our symposium told us they now felt better equipped to articulate their disquiet about the DfE reform agenda because the issues and arguments had been helpfully brought together and explicated in the book and the symposium. By harnessing the educative and transformative potential of dissent, expressed through our various and diverse work (which has been brought together so well in this edited collection), we open up the discussion to other stakeholders, while providing an important knowledge resource and a vital springboard for further critical and constructive discussion and action.


Brooks, C. (2023, October 6). Potentially silenced academics should not retreat into echo chambers. Times Higher Education.

Ellis V. (Ed.). (2023). Teacher education in crisis: The state, the market and the universities in England. Bloomsbury. 

Falk, B. (2009). Learning from history: Why we need dissent and dissidents. International Journal, 64(1). 243.     

Fazackerley, A. (2023a, September 30). Revealed: UK government keeping files on education critics’ social media activity. Observer.

Fazackerley, A. (2023b, November 18). ‘Shocking’ scale of UK government’s secret files on critics revealed. Observer.

Hanley, J., Bald, C., Kerr, C., Sen, R., & Webb, C. (2021). The interdependence of independence: A network map of children’s services.

Kerr, C., & Watts, N. (2021). Against a bitter tide: How a small UK charity operationalises dissent to challenge the ‘hostile environment’ for migrant children and families. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 34(3), 61–73.

Ledwith, M. (2016). Community development in action: Putting Freire into practice. Bristol University Press.

Slater, J. (2023). Putting design front and centre. Public Policy Design (blog).