Transient Vacuums, Politics and Research

I recently turned in a chapter ‘Embedded research within a transient vacuum in the managerialisation of a local authority’ for a book ‘Education Policy Research: Design and Practice at a time of Rapid Reform’ edited by Helen Gunter, Dave Hall and Colin Mills.  Like many an ill-thought-out-decision nothing will happen for many months then sometime in 2014 the book will be released and my mistakes and omissions will come back to haunt me.  In the meantime I thought I would blog about what I mean by a ‘transient vacuum’.

Since the 1980’s the English public sector including the education system have been subjected to wave after wave of reforms leading to a proliferation of terms to describe the changes: ‘policy hysteria’ (Stronach and MacLure 1997), ‘policy epidemic’ (Ball 2003), ‘high modernism and hyper-innovation’ (Moran 2003) and re-disorganization (Pollitt 2007)… and many more besides.  These changes, the type, the rationale, the effects and the pace were intricately related to processes of managerialisation and neoliberalisation of the public sector and society. A consequence of the rapid and continual change is that the measured pace of research from writing funding application to conducting field research and writing up can take several years.  Thus research when it is published can describe and engage with a radically different policy context and set of organizational problems.

The chapter I wrote developed on these issues by exploring research in a context of managerialisation in which transient vacuums emerge around the enactment of policies at the local level.  The ‘transient’ describes the pace of change and the ‘vacuum’ emphasises the strange sense of researching an initiative where ‘the centre doesn’t hold’.  Under New Labour the centralisation of policy also worked to centralise interpretation, meaning making and language (Bevir 2005).  Managers had a requirement to enact policies even there were contradictions between these policies (O’Reilly and Reed 2010) and the representation of problems in policies and the problems faced by professionals in working with children and young people.  Discourses and technologies of managerialism, prevalent in New Labour policy and implementation, were founded upon and utilised rational and de-contextualised forms of knowledge that replaced intuitive and contextualised knowledge (Flyvbjerg 2001).  John Smyth (1998) presented the fascinating idea of the construal of teachers as ‘ventriloquists’, articulating a policy discourse without the space, time or legitimacy to question or develop alternative understandings and articulations.  All of this collapsed together to give a sense of disconnection between policy and research and the ‘real’ professionals, schools, organizations, places and problems. I felt as though I researching in a vacuum of official words muted by managers working in de-contextualised spaces defined in Whitehall.

All of this came to mind after the publication the OECD published a report that placed England towards the bottom in literacy against all other developed countries.  Conservative Skills Minister Matthew Hancock jumped on the findings to declare, in this BBC article,

This shocking report shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world… These are Labour’s children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations.

His comments follow a well-beaten path of right-wing politicians and commentators taking poor rankings in international league tables and using these to denigrate public education.  The “dumbing down and low expectations” refers to the grade inflation that took place under New Labour.  The interpretation fits with Michael Gove’s view of education that making lessons and exams harder and more demanding, asking inner city children to learn Latin, will instill at work ethic and commitment that leads to kids striving not shirking in the classroom. So the problem and the solution are individual and moralizing.

I’m not going to defend New Labour’s approach to education. I’m sure many young people were placed on courses on little educational benefit in order to boost institutional performance.  I’m sure some of these young people realized what was going on and once they’d been placed in a particular and undesirable place in the educational system wondered what the point was and gave up a little bit more.

The focus on drive, motivation, expectations and demands (and now genetics) are arguably not the most important dimension in educational history in recent years.  As Peter Wilby wrote recently, in the Guardian,

For 25 years, education policy has followed a more or less consistent track, in which the main parties share certain assumptions: for example, that standards can only be raised by control from the centre; that schools and teachers need constant monitoring and testing; that competition is good for schools. But as we digest the latest horror story from the OECD – that standards of literacy and numeracy among our young adults are almost the lowest in the industrialised world and no better than those of their grandparents – you should ask whether more of the same can really be the answer… parental choice has done nothing to improve English schooling. Rather, it has increased segregation between rich and poor and left some schools with crippling burdens.

Yet parental choice is not really on the political agenda, not in the way that expectations are.  Fiona Miller explains why, writing about Tristram Hunt’s backing of free schools, again in the Guardian,

I have a rule of thumb when watching education ministers and their shadows perform in public. Remember the audiences, because there are two. The first is comprised of parents, pupils, heads and teachers. In spite of the best efforts of politicians to divide them, this group generally has a common interest in ensuring their local schools are as good as possible.

The second group is the political, mostly metropolitan, chattering classes, policy nerds and the media. Their agenda is different. They like to scent out ideological inconsistency and prey on personality clashes, and the media are disproportionately interested in anything that relates to personal choice, the state-private divide and free schools, which make up a miniscule part of England’s 24,000 school estate but command almost hysterical interest.

So what has all of this to do with transient vacuums?  Under New Labour the managerialisation and neoliberalisation continued apace.  The investment was positive but the obsession with targets led to perverse consequences and the gaming of the system led to a situation where exams can be accused of “dumbing down and low expectations”. The representation of the problem in policy is transient first, under New Labour, public sector inefficiency required targets and now, under the Coalition, low expectations are the reason for poor educational outcomes.  There is always the potential for vacuums forming around policy when politicians adopt ideological approaches to issues by, for example, blaming poor people or any minority or marginalised group for inequality, if out of nowhere a claim is made that 120,000 people cost the taxpayer £9 billion (read here) or any other hair-brained and cynical plot then programmes will be developed and professionals will implement them and if money can be found researchers will research them.  In these spaces professionals will seek to cope, resist and enact an ideological agenda that represent, define, blame, locate and obscure social issues in particular parts of society with consequences for who is to blame and who is still able to receive tax cuts.  All the time researchers will seek to understand these spaces, relate them to policy and lived realities, with the aim of impacting on policy and making society a little better but, I fear, these will be artificial and de-contextualised environments and that by the time the research is published policy will have already moved on.

James Duggan


Stronach, I., and M. MacLure (1997) Education research undone: The postmodern embrace, Buckingham: Open University Press.

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