This blog post is based on a recent article published in the British Educational Research Journal entitled ‘Towards a mechanism for expert policy advice in education’ (Skerritt, 2023). The article addresses the issue of academic expertise being marginalised in education policymaking and proposes a way of making policy that makes better use of academic expertise. Specific reference is made to policymaking in the UK and to the education ministry in England.
The article draws on my experiences of working with policymakers. It sets out to develop knowledge and understanding of policymaking and to generate conversations among academics about expert policy advice in education – the accumulation of which may eventually lead us towards better policymaking. The following are discussed: the disconnect between academic research and policy; what good policy advice looks like; and, most significantly, what an expert policy advice mechanism in education could look like.
The disconnect between academic research and policy
The first key factor discussed is the person behind the policy – policymakers have their own values, beliefs, experiences, motivations and so on which often influence their decisions, not academic literature. Moreover, despite the number of civil servants in a department, ministers hold the power and if a minister wants a policy introduced it will be introduced. A second key factor in the disconnect between policy and academic research is that among both elected officials and appointed staff, there tends to be a lack of expertise in ministries, and a third key factor is that academic literature is simply not produced to the speed at which policymakers tend to make decisions – that is, if they even want to use it. A fourth key factor is the problematic nature of knowledge, with certain kinds of knowledge being privileged and cherrypicked, with other kinds overlooked. Finally, a fifth key factor in the disconnect between policy and academic research is that there are a wide range of others outside of academia who contribute to policymaking and very often those legitimated by governments are those already supporting and advocating the views of government.
What good policy advice looks like
Good policy advice can be understood as having the following key characteristics: trustworthy in that policymakers and advisers should have mutual trust and there should be no lobbying; transparent in that evidence, advice, limitations and the ultimate decisions made should be outlined, including publicly; independent in that there should be no political interference in the work of advisers; and diverse in that a broad range of different perspectives should be heard.
‘It is fundamental that we get academic expertise into the policymaking realm, because too often this is not the case.’
What an expert policy advice mechanism in education could look like
An independent and diverse group of academic experts to provide trustworthy and transparent policy advice to the education ministry is proposed. It is fundamental that we get academic expertise into the policymaking realm, because too often this is not the case. By academic expertise, a broad range of academic scholarship should be considered by policymakers, such as the following: work that is solely literature based; work that is empirical, including qualitative, quantitative and mixed-methods studies; work that is critical; and work from a range of disciplines such as the history of education and the philosophy of education. This focus on academic expertise is not intended to come at the expense of others, however, but should supplement the work being done by the civil service, the teaching profession, think tanks and others.
It is important to stress that there is no ideal mechanism for offering expert advice to policymakers and what is suggested above is not a blueprint but one possibility for further discussion. Hopefully academics, from those with no first-hand experience to those with experience in advisory roles, will discuss and debate these possibilities. Maybe the article will provoke a direct response, privately and directly to my inbox, or in the form of responses published by the journal. If this does pick up momentum, there is arguably a role for national associations such as BERA to play through, for example, symposia held at annual conferences, events, workshops and seminars run by special interest groups, and blog posts such as this. What is needed now is some form of reaction from the academic community – is there value in this mechanism for expert policy advice in education? Where do we go from here?
Skerritt, C. (2023). Towards a mechanism for expert policy advice in education. British Educational Research Journal, 49(4), 749–765. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3867