Tell it as it is

Earlier this year the DfE employed an eminent Canadian educator, Dr Paul Cappon as a Research Fellow. He looked at the manner in which the education system in England operates and wrote a very interesting report called ‘Preparing English Young People for Work and Life: An International Perspective’. You can use the following link to access it.

Although the origin of the research was probably associated with the skills agenda and the role of schools in academic and vocational education the really interesting part of the paper deals with Dr Cappon’s views of what works in education systems. He are a selection of four extracts from the Executive Summary;

English educational successes appear to occur despite, rather than because of current systems and structures. The rigid pathways that confine students from a young age and throughout their education and training is a notable example. Since fragmentation characterises delivery of education in England, stronger networks must become an intrinsic part of a more coherent and successful delivery.

With regard to primary and secondary education, we find that recent adjustments to national curriculum have generally been sound, and that good GSCEs for all students in any educational/training track must be the goal. We find that careers advice, an acknowledged weakness of English education, requires considerable amendment and accountability.

Chief impediments to evidence-informed policy deliberation have been: few moderating influences on [sic] the political nature of educational policy; insufficient development of partnerships between civil society and policy makers; little structured external advice to government; insufficient deployment of academic researchers in support of research and analysis; and a propensity to set goals for individual schools but not for the system as a whole.

In a successful education system, the desirable attributes of the central authority would be the converse of those that we would hope to find at local level.

It is locally that we would expect and wish to find innovation, experimentation, risk-taking, entrepreneurialism, empiricist methods of trial and error. The principle of subsidiarity applies. Each district or region would be attempting to find creative means of attaining measurable common goals or targets – but do so in keeping with their own specific and particular contexts and challenges. When these attributes are present, experimentation and trial of diverse approaches in pursuit of similar goals may lead to fruitful collaboration and to regional sharing of promising practices and approaches. System-wide improvement occurs.

Conversely, the central authority would impart stability, consistency and a long term perspective. When it engages in changes of policy direction, it would do so carefully and in consultation with a broad array of partners from both the education sector and from other segments of civil society. Its intention would be to work as closely as possible from a convergence of viewpoints of its partners, so that its initiatives would have optimal chances of success. To that purpose, it would construct a sustainable framework of partners that would assist it in considering priorities, goals and means. (In doing so, however, it would refrain from delegating or abandoning its authority to independent bodies or commissions).

In such a system, decisions regarding practice and complementary funding allocations would frequently be made regionally or locally, but in accord with nationally prescribed goals.

What if, in England, just the opposite of this pattern obtained? What if is central government that is empiricist, entrepreneurial, with sudden mutability and frequent changes of direction, trying one approach and then another – often with only short periods allowed for practitioners to adjust and adapt?

In schools, districts and regions, on the other hand emulation, conservatism, rigidity, compliance, harmonisation and risk aversion appear to be the pattern.

In such a dynamic, would it not become difficult to foresee the kinds of creativity and innovation that, when scaled up, may lift a system to enhanced outcomes and to continuous improvement?

The last of these extracts is the one that for me clearly sums up what has been so wrong with the school system in England ever since central government lost faith in local government and started taking power to the centre. The legacy of this decision, taken originally in the 1970s, but never fully worked through, remains with us today with haphazard academisation and un-elected commissioners. Although there is innovation at the level of some schools and inspiring leadership teams, even there the hand of Ofsted looms large.

The message for me from Dr Cappon’s study is that it is time for everyone concerned with education in England to agree a new framework. There is still a willingness to create a workable system for the country as a whole, but time is running out, especially if the political landscape becomes one of polarised views and a breakdown of understanding.

There is not the space for a full essay on policy-making here but, one might look at the functions of policy formation as;

Problem solving;


Priority Fixing and


Perhaps one might add dissemination and implementation as further functions since the agreed system-wide agreement on the latter is a notably lacking feature of the present system. How do we create system-wide improvement in a coherent and constructive manner?


3 thoughts on “Tell it as it is

  1. Interesting that Dr Paul Cappon is now a ‘policy fellow’ at the Ministry of Justice. He’s described as being from the Canadian Council of Learning but the Canadian government ceased funding CCL in 2011 and the organisation dissolved in 2012. Its website is no longer available.
    Perhaps Dr Cappon should realise he’ll be expected to tell Minister of Justice Michael Gove what Gove wants to hear. If not, any report is likely to be shelved.

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