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Blog post Part of special issue: What are we educating for?

Engaging with educational policy in difficult times

Paul Ashwin, Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University

In December 1987, Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker summed up the purpose of the Education Reform Bill as ‘standards, freedom and choice’. Underpinning the bill was the belief that the freedom to choose educational providers would promote competition between providers and drive up standards. Making informed choices requires meaningful comparisons between educational providers, so providers must be measured and compete according to common metrics. This focus on choice, comparison and competition continues to shape educational policy in England, rather than the whole of the UK (see Sibieta & Jerrim, 2021).

As a result, English education policy has become focused on metrics as well as notions of ‘best practice’ and ‘what works’ that assume educational practices can be easily transferred between settings. This simplistic view means that, when those involved in education are consulted, it is on very narrow questions about how to achieve predefined outcomes. This oversimplified view seems to have misled English policymakers into thinking that they have the expertise to make educational judgments, whether this is by defining the teacher education curriculum or telling universities how to assess students’ spelling. It even appears that the Department for Education is recording the names of those who are critical of government policy, while ministers publicly name researchers who should not be consulted by public bodies.

It therefore feels like a very inopportune time for researchers to engage with English educational policy. However, we still have a responsibility to attempt to shape policies that support the development of an inclusive education system. While there are actions that can be pursued outside of the policy arena, I want to consider how researchers can engage with policymaking in an open and principled way.

‘Researchers have a responsibility to attempt to shape policies that support the development of an inclusive education system.’

First, it is important to consider why the language of ‘choice, comparison and competition’ oversimplifies education by obscuring its awkward complexity. Education always involves particular learners gaining access to particular forms of knowledge in particular settings. If the learners, the knowledge or the setting changes, then effective ways of developing a meaningful relationship to knowledge will change. Good education, therefore, is always rooted in its local context, and comparisons that ignore contextual differences obscure more than they reveal. Similarly, ‘best practice’ and ‘what works’ ignore how the success of any innovation is dependent on the hard-won knowledge and expertise of educators working locally. Rather than enforce ‘best practices’, it is much more effective to identify the educational principles that underpin successful innovations, for example in relation to teaching excellence in higher education (see Ashwin, 2022), and for those involved to consider how these principles might work in their locality.

In engaging with policymaking, it is important to recognise that policymakers and educational researchers have different priorities and are focused on achieving disparate outcomes. While it can be tempting to think that policymakers are asking the wrong questions, this cannot provide the basis for a meaningful and productive dialogue. Rather, this needs to start with a sustained engagement with policymakers’ priorities.

It is important that educational researchers share, but also recognise the limits, of current knowledge. This can be difficult, especially when others are self-importantly overreaching the limits of their own expertise. We need to recognise that all perspectives, including our own, are limited and may be wrong. A key role of educational researchers is to help to build conversations by giving policymakers access to the range of perspectives of those engaged in the education process. We are representing the collective body of educational knowledge rather than our own pet projects and should direct policymakers’ attention to the insightful work of others – including when it is based on a different approach to our own.

Usually, policy decisions are owned by policymakers; they are their decisions to make. While researchers should constructively advise policymakers based on their expertise, there will always be other perspectives and priorities that policymakers need to consider. Policymakers may make a decision with which particular researchers fundamentally disagree and, in engaging in policymaking processes, we need to recognise that we may feel that we have failed. However, this does not reduce our obligation to engage in policymaking processes to support conversations that take account of the diversity of people and institutions affected by policy changes. While it might feel that such efforts are in vain, researchers have a fundamental duty to share and speak for educational knowledge in the policymaking process. It is only by doing this in a sustained and principled way that we can credibly contribute to shaping policy when the opportunity arises as well as contributing to wider public debates about education.


Ashwin, P. (2022). Developing effective national policy instruments to promote teaching excellence: Evidence from the English case. Policy Reviews in Higher Education, 6(1).

Sibieta, L., & Jerrim, J. (2021). A comparison of school institutions and policies across the UK. Education Policy Institute.