Education and Politics · Policy and Practice

Nicky Morgan and educational bureaucracy: in politics ideology trumps practical solutions

Nicky Morgan The education system is a bureaucracy. In other words an administrative system associated with some social endeavour or other. More recently, a bureaucracy has become a term with negative connotations. I suppose its modern meaning conjures up images of workloads increased by pointless paperwork and dysfunctionality. Michael Gove came into office promising to do something about bureaucracy but did little. Nikki Morgan is currently creating more bureaucracy pondering the issue of bureaucracy . Carl Hendrick wrote about it recently.

I would like to appropriate some of the ideas of Basil Bernstein to consider the issue further. Bernstein’s contention is that there are two classes of knowledge in society the thinkable and the unthinkable. The former is the everyday knowledge of schools and colleges the latter is the knowledge derived by researchers and theorists in academia.

It is reminiscent of Durkheim’s construct of the sacred and profane. Bernstein’s contention is that the school curriculum is “imagined”. A legitimated discourse of the everyday. It is not the discourse of academia. Schools do not study Biology in the same way that academics do.

The space between the two types of knowledge is the discursive gap. The gap between the knowledge of the other and the knowledge of the everyday. It is in this gap that new ideas can emerge become legitimated and then reproduced in schools. It is this gap, which creates the bureaucratic problem. The gap is heavily controlled. This is done by numerous agents. Some are private companies, like exam boards, and others government agencies such as OFSTED and OFQUAL. All of these agents create new political frameworks and more paperwork. They also create inter-body disputations and obtuse outcomes.

Examples of obtuse outcomes are, for example, schools leveraging their customer – supplier relationship with exam boards to exert power over those boards. Another example is the relationship between OFSTED and schools. Such is the perverse nature of power OFSTED has to instruct schools what not to do because schools are effectively being organised simply to pander to OFSTED.

Each agent creates waste and consumes time as well as dissipating power. Power then re-asserts itself by creating more paperwork to assert its control as well as engaging in energy sapping disputes with the likes of OFSTED and the Exam boards.

The introduction of free schools, academies and Govian pedagogy will introduce more complexity as new power-groups battle for influence over the discursive gap. The complexity of the sectional ideologies and interests, which function within the educational field weaken the intentions of politicians and their ability to reduce bureaucracy. In other words, bureaucracy is the mechanism by which politicians maintain control.

One solution is to create a single exam body and to invest in improving assessment so that the data produced by exams, in conjunction with data generated by institutions, is more reliable. OFSTED’s role could become that of a watch dog, triangulating the data from institutions with that from exams. We are a million miles from that scenario. The data is simply not reliable not least because politicians keep changing the goal posts.

It won’t happen anyway. Despite constant threats to exam boards the government is unlikely to undermine the exam marketplace. In politics ideology trumps  practical solutions.


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