PPE at the Strand Group: partnership, practitioners, and experience

Jack Brown, Researcher in Residence at No. 10 Downing Street and at the Strand Group, introduces some unique modules.
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“PPE: the Oxford degree that runs Britain” said a 2015 Guardian headline.

And it’s true, “Oxford University graduates in philosophy, politics and economics make up an astonishing proportion of Britain’s elite.” However, King’s College London’s Strand Group has been focusing on its own version, blending partnerships, practitioners, and student experience.

The Strand Group is a contemporary history unit at King’s, currently running four masters-level modules at the Department of Political Economy. These modules focus on how British government operates at the centre:

  • The Treasury and an introduction to Economic History – in partnership with HM Treasury
  • The History of the Prime Minister 1945-1979 – in partnership with No. 10 Downing Street
  • The History of the Prime Minister 1979-2015 – in partnership with No. 10 Downing Street
  • The Blair Years

These are all contemporary history modules which add a focus on the role of personality to the more traditional issues of policy and process. Another two will go live in the 2018/19 academic year: the postgraduate module, “London: History and Governance”, and a first-year undergraduate module, “Prime Ministers and Leadership since Thatcher – Theory and Practice”.

The majority are partnered with central government institutions, and all make use of the group’s networks to bring practitioners into the classroom. The modules are designed to blend academic theory and practical experience, aiming to give students unparalleled insight into “how government really works”.

Challenges

Bringing practitioners, both current and former, into the classroom brings clear challenges. Careful, interventionist chairing is required to ensure that guests provide as much useful, focused insight as possible, as well as to ensure balance in terms of the ideas and events being discussed, and discussion between the guest and the students. Rambling anecdotes and overtly political statements have to be redirected or pointed out, but not always shut down, and the academic setting and presence of students have so far prevented even the most headstrong guests from overstepping the mark.

On the “Treasury and an Introduction to Economic History” module, a sizeable teaching panel, featuring both academics and practitioners, leads the entire session. Jon Davis leads each class, setting out key themes and outlining the chronology, but the entire panel is encouraged to add their insights whenever relevant, and specific experts are consulted each week during the latter stages of the session, with relevant guests brought in wherever possible.

However, in the case of this module, the teaching panel is already sizeable and experienced, featuring: former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury Nick Macpherson; former Shadow Chancellor and Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury Ed Balls; two serving senior Treasury officials (the recently-appointed Chief Economic Adviser Clare Lombardelli, and Deputy Director Mario Pisani); Senior Economics Commentator for The Observer William Keegan; and Catherine MacLeod, former special adviser to Chancellor Alistair Darling. Each panellist brings different experiences and qualities to the lively sessions, making controlling the discussion challenging.

Like all teaching, this is a matter of skill and subtlety, rather than an exact science. It requires attentive and authoritative chairing – but then so does leading a seminar discussion of any kind. Student feedback has been consistently excellent for all of the partnered modules, a sign that this is working, although it requires constant evaluation and self-monitoring to ensure that the delicate balance is maintained.

Practitioner involvement also involves a greater degree of administration. Special guests have to be lined up in advance and know where to go and whom to meet when they arrive on campus, and they also need to be briefed on what to expect and how the sessions are organised. This requires flexibility from both the guests, the academic chair of the module and the students themselves. These atypical modules often require the students to engage more thoroughly with the subject material, so they can ask questions and get the most out of the practitioners.     

A “virtuous circle”

The Strand Group has long believed in operating a “virtuous circle” of teaching, events and research, with each element crucial to the successful development of the other. The involvement of practitioners in teaching, for example, has often arisen from their attendance at, or delivery of, the group’s public events. These events, which began as mini-conferences for doctoral students to discuss their research, are now – 138 events across two separate universities later – high-profile forums for the discussion of the biggest issues faced by the government today.

Equally, the teaching process itself can also inform research. Strand Group Director Jon Davis’ upcoming book, The Blair Governments Reconsidered (co-authored with visiting professor and fellow Strand Group teacher John Rentoul of the Independent) draws heavily on information gathered in “The Blair Years” classes, with guest speakers ranging from Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Anji Hunter, Peter Mandelson, and Sally Morgan.

Students also benefit from the group’s doctoral students whose research is enhanced by access to research networks and source material. One of the group’s doctoral students, for example, is delivering a PhD examining Michael Barber’s tenure as head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, based in part, on his personal diaries from the period. Guests are encouraged to speak on the record, and students are expected to use the opportunity to ask questions relating to the chosen topic of their essays, providing them with the opportunity to gather new, original primary source material directly. This was absolutely the case in March, for example, when Tony Blair guest taught.

Developing “soft skills”

The high level of debate that comes with having former (and current) politicians, civil servants, special advisers, journalists, and other senior practitioners engage with classes pushes and challenges students, and gives them the sense that they are experiencing something special. All students are expected to ask questions. While basic politeness is of course expected, questions and answers can be pointed and challenging, making for a lively and interesting debate.

In addition, students are expected to present on at least one of their module’s topics, generally in front of the practitioners that are the subject of the presentation. They then participate in critiquing the content of the presentations. This experience, whilst admittedly intimidating for some, helps develop “soft” interpersonal and presentational skills, alongside the more traditional academic skills that are tested via written essays. For those students studying history or public policy with a view to pursuing a career in some aspect of politics or government, these skills will be just as vital in their chosen field of work as writing and conducting research.

Partnered teaching

The partnered modules mentioned previously are unique in their relationship with government bodies. Both courses see classes take place inside the institutions themselves, at HM Treasury and No. 10 Downing Street respectively. The final “History of the Prime Minister” class is taken by Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood and held around the Cabinet table at No. 10. This provides students with further practical experience of operating within imposing and secretive buildings, as well as bringing the subject to life.

In addition, the Treasury module is also taken by a group of HMT officials, who bid competitively to take the module as professional development while still serving as civil servants. Their presence alongside King’s MA students makes for a fascinating dynamic, with each group benefitting from the other’s different perspectives in seminar discussions and presentations. For the Treasury’s part, they believe that their officials benefit from learning about the history of HM Treasury, helping to maintain an “institutional memory” that provides context for modern challenges. As former Permanent Secretary Nick Macpherson observes, better historical knowledge of how past officials dealt with similar crises can help prevent their “reinventing the wheel” when faced with new challenges. Having HMT officials take a module with KCL students does present its own challenges, like getting HMT officials access to the campus and permission to use libraries, for example. This requires flexibility from the administrators of the MA programmes at King’s and an acknowledgement from staff that this kind of external engagement benefits the university as a whole.

Mario Pisani said: “An important part of improving our professionalism as policy officials is to understand the lessons from our institutional history. The policy struggles and successes of the past can be incredibly insightful and helpful in formulating the policies of the future. The Treasury’s institutional partnership with King’s College London has the specific objective of supporting the policy professionalism agenda by encouraging officials to discover new analytical methods, new sources of evidence and more creative approaches to policy.”

It is hoped that this model will be rolled out across government on a wider basis. Discussions are currently underway with several government departments, and bespoke training for civil servants is now underway. Each of the existing Strand Group modules has a different emphasis regarding guest practitioners, teaching panels, and the extent to which they are partnered with government institutions. A flexible approach is necessary. But the results hopefully speak for themselves.

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