Why a change is not as good as a rest when it comes to education policy

Year on year the revolutions of educational change appear (at least to me) to spin faster, backwards and forwards, like an enormous washing machine. Centralisation, decentralisation, diplomas on, diplomas off, EMA to bursary and perhaps back again, three more types of colleges to add to the confusion,  hello quango, goodbye quango, new curricula, frameworks, white papers, funding streams, fee and floor targets, subsidies, tables, measures, rules.

Aside from how confusing all this must be for the lay-person and the boring but true fact that it takes years to see the impact of most policy changes (and so many seem to be changed before the effect can be felt, as if someone were impatiently switching between washing programmes), what’s the impact on people who work in schools, colleges and universities?

Last year a group interested in reputation and communications in further education (of whom I was a member) commissioned a piece of research looking at what people who work in FE think of their jobs, the sector they work in and the people who lead it. We were particular keen to understand whether employees were likely to act as advocates for their college and FE in general and, if not, why not.

The result was a forensic examination of what gets people out of bed in the morning to work in a college and what makes them want to stay under the duvet. One surprisingly – at least to me – common source of disconcertion was government policy. Or more specifically, its fluctuations.  Staff ‘are challenged by the changing nature of government policy [my italics] and the effect this has on working conditions and the quality of delivery to students’ according to the research (which included a survey of over 1300 staff and a complementary qualitative study). ‘Employees commented on leaders being overly concerned with government targets and being reactive rather than pro-active.’ Conversely strong leaders were praised for ‘protecting’ their staff from the slings and arrows of policy changes.

Frederick Herzberg (who you can see doing his best impression of Columbo in this BBC 2 film) developed a theory of job satisfaction in the 1950’s which split the needs of the working woman and man into ‘motivating’ and ‘hygiene’ factors. Hygiene factors – such as working conditions, salary, the way we are supervised – keep us from being unhappy (as Professor Herzberg says in the film). Motivating factors – responsibility, the meaning and significance of a role – make us ‘want to do it’.

The FE staff study suggests that there is a strong connection between rapidity of change in the context of  education policy and the stripping away of hygiene factors for people who work in that system, to such an extent that roles become denuded of meaning and, correspondingly, motivating factors.

The story for schools is not very different. This paper on ‘the emotional state of teachers during educational policy change’ presented at the European Conference on Educational Research in 2003 by Brigitte Smit ends with the warning:

“This inquiry revealed that educational policy change creates considerable uncertainty and even ambiguity among teachers. This was evidenced in teachers’ anxiety, professional isolation, and loss of connection and trust in the education system. If policy is serious about implementation, policy makers need to take cognisance of teachers’ emotional responses and dispositions towards educational change.”

With the advent of any new government there is a tradition of pejoratively labelling those resistant to change. They are the lump, the mass, the blob, them. There is also a cultural cliché of the moaning teacher, taking too many holidays, insufficiently progressive (whatever that means). And while there may certainly be more than a grain of truth in the assertion that professions (of whatever type) are inherently conservative, name-calling misses the point.

Even if every significant change to education policy over the past fifty years was benign, enlightened and conceptually the right thing to do at that point, they could still collectively amount to a list of mistakes as a result of their ubiquity.

If what you are doing (or perhaps more tellingly, how you are doing it) de-motivates a significant proportion of that workforce then something is wrong, surely? A more useful question – if the impact of hasty change is generally accepted to be negative, why does it happen so regularly?

I’m not on first name terms with very many politicians (OK, none) but they don’t strike me as (generally) deluded or unintelligent. Nor do the people who advise them. But when they are proposing and promoting new policies do they sincerely believe that they are introducing a change for the better or are they rolling with the political cycle? This is a system that promotes differentiation and punishes stasis – the irrepressible one-upmanship of party politics, engineered by the need, desire (call it what you will) to be re-elected and powered by wonks, think tanks, columnists, editors, analysts, advisors and a cast of many thousands, including people like me who make a living helping institutions respond to change.

Or, to put it another way, if you put too many clothes in a washing machine they come out creased.

I’m not advocating the dislocation of the political from education policy; we spend so much on education as a state that this would seem at best naive. Change can, of course, be genuinely progressive –  witness the Education Acts of 1902, 1918, 1921 and 1936, for instance and the implausibility of Wackford Squeers in an era of Teaching Councils.

But we do need a better system for testing and regulating the impact of policy (per se) on the people who work in schools, colleges and universities as well as on pupils, students and their parents.

More on what research tells us about how policy change affects the reputations of education systems among the latter anon.