In the first blog in this mini-series ('Evidence is all well and good, but don’t forget values') I argued that whichever party wins the next election will need to make the beliefs and values underpinning its policies clear. Then, in the second ('Seven stories of autonomy and centralisation') I showed how competing strategies can result in incoherent policy making.
In this blog, I want to argue that being explicit about the values that sit behind a strategy also matters at a school or trust level.
Schools and Trusts often talk about being founded on a distinct vision and ethos. I got interested in this back in 2017 and worked on a study looking at the relationship between a trust’s vision, strategy, and operating model. Colleagues at the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), CJK Associates, Ambition Institute and I asked leaders to rate various statements according to how well they represented their trust’s approach, and we compared this to their operating model to see how ideas translated into practice.
To take one example, lots of school trusts say they believe that equalising access to enrichment and extracurricular activities is an important part of securing education equity. However, we found that they pursued their vision in different ways.
Some believed that the best approach was to drive things forward at a MAT level. For example, Ormiston Academy Trust developed a trust-wide Youth Social Action programme. They researched it as a trust, rolled it out across their schools and commissioned CfEY to evaluate its early development.
Other MATs take a different approach, asking everyone to prioritise the area and to build it into their culture, but leaving it up to individual schools to decide how.
Both approaches have perfectly viable rationales: local determination allows for greater adaptation to community needs, but central support and economies of scale allow for more thorough research and design.
Picking a strategy might seem like a purely rational question based on what’s most likely to work, but as I’ve pointed out in the other blogs in this series, these choices are also informed by values. Questions of autonomy, freedom and hierarchy are never value free.
The same goes at school level. In a recent twitter exchange one teacher asked ‘How do you get 6th form students to turn up to extra-curricula, enrichment sessions?’. Another responded by admitting that they compelled all pupils to attend. A third bristled at that idea, believing that pupils need to have the freedom to choose for themselves.
Even though all three teachers shared a belief that equal access to enrichment mattered for equity, their choice of strategy depended on values as well as what they thought would work best.
Our desire for ‘evidence based policy’ can sometimes let us off the hook from being transparent about our values. But, being more transparent about the rationale for policies, whether at a national, trust or school-level might yield more coherent strategies, and pave the way for more productive conversations about how we map our way to educational equity.
This blog was written in response to our discussion series 'Mapping The Way to a More Equitable Future for Education' which brings together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers and practitioners might need to overcome them.