Academics as policy entrepreneurs? Prepare to fight for your ideas (if you want to win)

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One of my best friends is a double doctor, deciding during post-doctoral research on cancer that, actually, he wanted to be an anaesthetist. Some years later, he’s now got a job at a medical school with an ‘education’ component. Much to my amusement, he recently related to me with obvious disgust just how many different, contested theories there were about education, and how poor the evidence base seemed. “It’s like nobody really knows what education’s for, or how to do it. What the actual heck have people been doing all these years?”.

Black and white

I’m enjoying seeing Dr Dr venture out of the pure, monochrome world of science for the murky grey depths where I’ve been dwelling my whole career; the social sciences, and education in particular. Although evidence plays a growing role, any contested issue in education ultimately boils down to differing views about its purpose, which in turn rest upon personal values. Our own priorities and politics influence the world we want, and education is the vehicle to get everyone to that promised land. No wonder he’s feeling confused and frustrated.

Of course, I exaggerate. The sciences are hotly contested too, with personal pride, politics, and fortune playing their part, along with some shaky evidence. And the strength of evidence is growing in some fields of education, spearheaded by the Education Endowment Foundation. But, even they struggle to replicate their randomised controlled trials (RCTs), thanks to pesky things like context, professional judgement and other uncontrollable little variables (or children as they’re sometimes known). Education struggles to find the case studies that can match the millions of lives saved by screening and immunisation programmes.  

In this environment, what is an education researcher to do? How do they demonstrate their idea is ‘what works’, their theory has ‘efficacy’, or their intervention has ‘impact’? How do they juggle the demands of TEF, REF, KEF or the next TLA? Reading James Arthur’s latest book could help.

An impact case study

If you’re not familiar with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues that Arthur established in 2012, it is the beating global academic heart for educational ideas about fostering qualities such as grit, resilience, and character. This agenda first really came across my radar in 2014 when Nicky Morgan allocated £4.5m to make Britain a “global leader” in teaching it, including some funding for the Jubilee Centre. At a speech she gave at the Centre that year, she explained one of her “first acts as education secretary” was to give DfE a “new focus on character education”, explaining at length how influential the Centre was. Fast-forward three years and Morgan’s written a book on the subject from the back benches titled ‘Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character’. Meanwhile, her successor has ‘re-aligned’ the funding towards her own priority for DfE, social mobility.

So there you have it, a perfect example of how academic fads can be quickly co-opted then ditched by the Westminster roundabout? Best not to dip a toe in such dangerous waters at all? Wrong. The Centre goes from strength to strength, with a diverse range of funding sources, a national network of practitioners and researchers, growing global influence, appeal across the political spectrum, a history that pre-dates Morgan’s interest, and big plans for the future.

Training manual or epic poem

Whether you’re convinced by the character agenda or not, it should be interesting to anybody to understand how Arthur and colleagues have done this? As this manual for impact explains, by having a long-term campaign strategy, not just a battle plan. They have honed their ideas and fortified their evidence, through many years of painstakingly rigorous research. If modern politicians claim to want ‘evidence-based policy’ then the Centre has produced ‘gold standard’ RCTs and peer-reviewed articles. But more than that, they have engaged potential opponents, as well as identified and enlisted allies to build supportive coalitions. They have also invested in their own training, as communicators and champions for the Centre. They have left the ivory tower again and again, to fight for their ideas in the quick and dirty arenas of politics and the media. Those ideas seem better as a result, seasoned and tempered out in the field.  

The first three chapters provide a comprehensive and sophisticated review of the literature on ‘policy impact’, in education and beyond. There are a range of perspectives on the different worlds of policy and research, with ideas of how each can understand and engage the other. Academia sometimes appears to pine wistfully for a bygone era, left alone to have play-fights in lonely minarets. It can feel overwhelming at times, with multiple models and theories, only some of which seem useful. Although it’s a useful overview, it also illustrates the challenges researching the complex human process is policymaking. There is also a chapter analysing other initiatives in education, from the good to the bad and the ugly. The final chapter provides an almost autobiographical case study, as Arthur explains in detail what he’s done and how (though disappointingly few failures are revealed). Throughout, it is Arthur’s successful experiences as an ‘impact gladiator’ / operator himself that binds it all together, blending theory and practice authoritatively.

Coup de grâce

Having researched this exact topic for a couple of multinational publishers myself, I jumped at the chance to meet James and review his book. For me there are three key points to take away. First, understanding ‘what works’ is an important and necessary step, but always requires an accompanying tussle about what matters. Second, whether academic or policy maker, engagement with ‘the other’ will help you up your own game. And finally, if you want your ideas to change anything out in the real world then you need to learn how to fight for them then go get bloody.

Whatever your discipline, this book is full of advice and examples that might just help you to win, or, at least get a bigger slice of the 25% of REF2021 allocated as impact money. Even gladiators need to get paid.

James Arthur is Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor for Staffing at the University of Birmingham. His book, ‘Policy entrepreneurship in education. Engagement, Influence and Impact’, is published by Routledge.

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