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Policy for an imaginary school: a call to break the spell

María Teresa Flórez Petour

The initial motivation for my doctoral thesis emerged from my involvement in a programme for the implementation of Assessment for Learning (AfL) with Chilean teachers in partnership with the Ministry of Education. The results of this experience resembled those of international policy and research around the topic: AfL was highly valued by participants but it was also highly difficult to implement in practice. The reason was that a myriad of pre-conditions needed to be in place before this innovative approach could be owned and enacted by teachers and schools. When these conditions are examined, one arrives to the conclusion that many policies are developed thinking of an imaginary construction of the field of education. Policymakers and practitioners seem to have different schools in their minds.

We need to remove the veil and start thinking how policy for a ‘real’, multi-voiced, divergent, messy, complex and, above all, human context would look like

The intention here, nonetheless, is not to criticise AfL but rather to pose questions such as: Why is it so difficult to enact? Where the responsibilities for its lack of dissemination should be placed? How can we develop policy for the ‘real’ education field with all its complexities? My doctoral thesis tackled some of these issues by studying assessment reform processes in Chile from a polysytemic, historical and ideological perspective (Flórez 2014 and 2015). This broader scope illuminated three aspects that would be worth considering when assessment (and other) policies are developed:

Taking all actors and systems into account: a complex understanding of policy needs to go beyond holding schools and teachers accountable for the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of an implementation process. In all the periods I studied there were nine different systems relevant to the development of policy around assessment: political parties, institutions of education governance, schools, the economic sector, foreign models or education systems, families, public opinion, teacher education and the academy. Only as an example, part of the ‘failure’ to implement AfL in Chile was due to budget decisions in the Congress, which privileged policies related to standard setting above those connected to AfL. Political actors as well as the Ministry with its internal differences and simultaneous policy messages, therefore, share considerable responsibility in the outcome of this policy process. However, these types of actors are seldom included when the outcomes of education policy are analysed.

Looking at the past and learning from it: by abandoning the here-and-now myopia of current education policy and thinking of it in connection to policies in the past, we gain a different understanding of the reasons why AfL becomes so difficult to enact in practice. From my documentary analysis as well as from my interviews with experienced teachers, it became apparent that assessment paradigms were not historically successive but rather that they overlapped and co-existed chaotically intertwined in policy messages and practice, a landscape that has not changed in the present. In this context, AfL becomes an innovative repertoire that has to struggle with a very strong tradition of predominant views on assessment, which offer considerable resistance to change. Unless those previous beliefs are deconstructed, AfL bears little hope for realisation.

Understanding policy as an ideologically contested space: views on assessment are not neutral. They are embedded in views about education and society, in relation to which they have a specific function. In historical perspective, assessment policies have been predominantly focused on functions of certification, selection and distribution in a pre-defined social order, as well as on more basic-skills, mechanistic, memory-based and simplistic approaches to learning. Although in different shapes, high-stakes assessment has been in place in Chile since the 19th Century. Like in the present, no matter how many curriculum and pedagogical innovations were introduced in the system (AfL among them), actors followed the direction of high-stakes assessment due to its consequences. Each time an attempt was made to change these predominant trends through legislation, the issue reached the political level and change was eventually hindered. This scenario portrays the field of assessment as an arena where a broader struggle between ideas of society and education occurs, with assessment being a crucial power device in defining who is to be the victor.

By persisting in an imaginary representation of schools we can only generate a narrow and fictitious field of education. We need to remove the veil and start thinking how policy for a ‘real’, multi-voiced, divergent, messy, complex and, above all, human context would look like. Taking history, ideology as well as a broader and more dynamic view about the actors and systems involved in policy offers a good starting point.


Flórez Petour, M.T. (2014). Assessment reform in Chile: a contested discursive space. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Education, University of Oxford, England.

Flórez Petour, M.T. (2015). Systems, ideologies and history: a three-dimensional absence in the study of assessment reform processes. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(1), 3-26.