Top DfE advisor says consultations are never a ‘sham’

Use evidence and examples and avoid insulting ministers or writing “a diatribe” if you want to get yourself heard in government consultations.

This advice from Tim Leunig the Department for Education’s chief analyst, at the researchED conference on Saturday could not have come at a more relevant time, as educationists across England prepare to tell the government what they think of its plan to create new grammar schools.

Leunig, a London School of Economics academic currently on a leave of absence as a key adviser to the DfE, insisted the government did listen to people, and that consultations were never a “sham”.

“We… listen to what people say,” he said. “We listen most when they are reasoned. We listen most when they are evidence-based.

We listen most when they are reasoned. We listen most when they are evidence-based

“We listen least when people just write a diatribe, and we listen not at all when people simply insult the motives of the politicians concerned.”

Leunig, who admitted that he had read more than 1,000 responses to a recent survey on school accountability, said members of the public who wanted to influence ministers should respond to consultations stating who they were and why they should be listened to, and explain their point of view with “evidence and examples”.

“Those are the ones that get noticed by the civil servants, those are the ones that individually are more likely to end up in front of the minister,” he said.

Leunig told delegates there was “an evidence base for expanding grammar schools”, adding: “They want to [expand], and for the children who go there from poor backgrounds and middling backgrounds to do well. Ofsted says they’re good schools.

“For those who oppose grammar schools, you need to ask yourself a question, if your views are sincerely held and you hold a stronger evidence base than the one that I have outlined, as to why have you not been successful in persuading people of that?”

He added that the prime minister had been “absolutely adamant she did not want to return to the system of the past.

“This was not a simple speech that said ‘grammar schools are good and we should have more of them’,” he said.

The academic also spoke about representations from the education sector changing the government’s mind on policy, such as the decision to scrap the proposed C-grade threshold for English and maths under Progress 8.

“Every one of the maths organisations wrote in pleading with us not to have a C grade threshold in maths. They said it was distorting maths teaching, that it was leading to teaching to the test.

“We changed our position because outsiders wrote in.”

He admitted there were times when ministers were “uninterested in evidence”, but said there were reasons for this.

“Issues such as ‘should students study history until the age of 16 or not’ are not issues on which there is an obvious evidence base that anyone can use.

“At the opposite extreme there are issues in which ministers are categorically and absolutely evidence-driven. No minister has ever said ‘oh I don’t care what the evidence says on asbestos’. I can’t imagine any minister would ever do that.”

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  1. According to Leunig, the ‘evidence base’ for grammar expansion is:

    1 “They want to [expand]’ This isn’t evidence. This is describing what grammars want to do. It’s like saying the evidence for using rhino horn for curing impotence is that ‘men want it’.
    2 Pupils from ‘poor’ and ‘middling’ backgrounds do well. Now, there’s a surprise. If you select pupils at 11 for their high ability then it’s likely they’ll do well irrespective of background.
    3 Ofsted says they’re good schools. That’s true but it ain’t necessarily so. Two, in Poole and Boston, have just been judged Requires Improvement. In any case, if they are good or better schools, then they should open their doors to the children of all taxpayers rather than just the ones they want.

    • Mark Watson

      I really wonder whether you actually read the articles on Schools Week or just immediately head to the bottom and start writing your comments to ensure that, yet again, you are the first contributor.
      If anyone cares to go back and read the above article it does not report that Tim Leunig’s evidence base for grammar expansion are the three points set out by Janet above. What it actually says is that Leunig “told delegates there was “an evidence base for expanding grammar schools”, adding: “They want to [expand], and for the children who go there from poor backgrounds and middling backgrounds to do well. Ofsted says they’re good schools.”
      The important word to note here is “adding”.
      He’s saying (1) there is an evidence base, and (2) they want to expand. The second statement is not the justification for the first.
      Do you genuinely not see this?

    • Mark Watson

      Come on Janet, you came onto this thread and as I see it expounded your personal prejudices without any basis in reality. I’ve called you out so please have the decency to respond.

  2. Shena Lewington

    Unfortunately, from my own experience, it seems that the DfE may not always take too much notice of responses to their consultations.

    For example, in 2013, the School Governance regulations were being amended, and although several of the correpondants raised technical issues that had been overlooked in the draft legislation, no amendments were made. Eventually, formal amendment legislation had to be introduced to rectfy a situation that could easily have been avoided had proper attention been paid to what was said.

    Ref. Info from the twenty five responses to a targeted (but not publicly available) consultation on School Governance Regulations 2013. Items not taken into account included the requirement to provide the paperwork with seven days notice of committee meetings.

    This particular matter may not seem that important but it does suggest there is nom mchanism to ensure responses are properly collated and analysed.

  3. Mark Watson

    Unfortunately it shows how low things have sunk when it is felt necessary to say that people should actually use evidence and examples when making a point and they should avoid hurling insults.
    Reading the comments on Schools Week though it is clear such advice is necessary.