The former senior DfE civil servant David Bell muses on one of the thorniest philosophical divides in education. Should it really all be about evidence?

Just before the general election, I participated in a press conference in which a group of experts looked at the various political parties’ manifestos through a lens of educational evidence. It was interesting to see policies subjected to rigorous appraisal and, in some cases, found wanting.

Yet as I sat there, I realised from my own experience of working with politicians at the heart of government that decisions were not always based on hard evidence. And surprising though it may be, that is not quite as outrageous as it sounds.

For one, educational evidence rarely – if ever – provides certainty in the way that would properly be expected in the physical or mathematical sciences. For example, context matters, especially when importing teaching techniques from other countries.

So the success of Finland’s education system might have as much to do with the homogeneity of its population as it does with the qualifications of its teachers. The achievement of students in south-east Asia could be related to family expectations which are different in the UK.

There is also the question of values: if a politician fundamentally believes in markets and competition, it is likely to shape their views about the autonomy of schools. If you support democratic oversight of schools at local level, then your policy prescriptions may be different.

I never met a politician who didn’t care about evidence

Neither of these points of view is absolutely right or wrong. The success of either approach can be supported by evidence, either from this country or elsewhere.

The thorny issue of selection in schools is a good example of a clash of values. Those in favour of grammar schools may simply believe that academic selection based on ability is a good thing. Where you stand on the issue is likely to be as much about how you think equality of opportunity is best brought about, as it is about the evidence you can advance.

It is also the case that, despite hyperbole, virtually all – electable – politicians in this country stand for “mainstream” values. Fortunately too, they can evolve. Just think of where we would be today if values such as ‘knowing your place’ continued to pervade our education system.

In all my time working in government, I never came across a politician who did not care about evidence. In the post-1997 Labour government era, ministers wanted to draw in evidence from a wider variety of sources to support wraparound policies such as Sure Start and Extended Schools.

Michael Gove was keen to look much more carefully at international evidence of what worked, not least when it came to the curriculum and examinations. He also sought to crowdsource ideas by inviting the wider online education community to contribute their ideas.

And it is too crude to say that politicians simply want evidence to fit their prejudices. If educational evidence is contestable, as it is, then it is not unreasonable to use one’s values as the basis of looking for evidence to inform the policies you are devising. The risk comes when you are deaf to alternative ways of doing something.

All of this is not to argue that evidence does not matter when it comes to politicians and education. The work being done by the Educational Endowment Foundation should enable politicians to be better informed about what works. Educational research can help to inform policy.

Likewise Ofsted, whose most important asset is being able to speak on the basis of the evidence it gathers (and, as we all know, this evidence does not go unchallenged).

The best lessons for politicians come from teachers themselves. Their work is informed by their values but experience requires them to be pragmatic.

Trial and error is important. Some approaches work in most circumstances but not all. And the very best teachers are always open to learning something new every day.

Now there’s something for the secretary of state to ponder!


David Bell is vice-chancellor at the University of Reading