Policy hysteresis

By Ben Durbin

Monday 14 October 2013

There’s nothing new under the sun.  Secretaries of State of every political hue come to power keen to make their mark, seeking to correct the mistakes of the previous administration.

As an optimist by nature, I would like to think that the net effect over multiple administrations is genuine progress.  That the nation’s schools provide a more consistently high quality of education for children of all abilities than they did in past decades.  But when you start to look at the detail you can discern repeating cycles.  The reforms of one administration undo the reforms of the last, which themselves reversed earlier changes and so forth in an ever receding cycle of policy birth and re-birth.  And this endless process of change comes at a price.

Comments made at the weekend by new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt place an emphasis on an evolution not a revolution of the coalition’s policies on free schools and local authority control.  For all but the most ardently opposed to government reforms, these comments should therefore be welcomed.

Nirvana or tempest?

Why is this?  You could argue that a repeating cycle of policy change is merely a symptom of a well-functioning system.  Professional and democratic accountability provide important negative feedback loops to ensure that policy never veers too far from some Platonic ideal centre ground.  Changes across election cycles and the leanings of particular politicians are simply noisy distractions from an ongoing march towards educational nirvana.

But for teachers and pupils noisy distractions can cause serious difficulty.  Much like classical man subjected to the whimsy of the warring gods, navigating the shifting landscapes of educational reform can be perilous.  From the heavens, tides appear to rise and fall with an apparent calm not experienced by those tossed about on the stormy waters of change.  To put it simply, an ongoing cycle of educational policy change comes at a price.

The price of change

In physics, hysteresis describes the phenomenon by which the output from a system lags behind the input.  If the input fluctuates in magnitude or direction, a hysteresis loop results: rather than moving back and forth along a single path between two fixed points, instead the system follows a unique path in each direction.  This effect can be observed by gradually loading and then unloading weights attached to a rubber band – for any given weight, the extension of the rubber band differs at the loading and unloading stage.  The interesting thing about such a system is that hysteresis loops are associated with a net loss in energy, and furthermore this effect increases with the frequency of oscillation. 

Perhaps we can observe a similar effect in our education system: a policy hysteresis if you will.  Every major change in policy direction comes at a price, be it financial (training staff, printing materials, employing consultants) or otherwise (uncertainty created amongst pupils, parents and employers).  Two equal and opposite policy changes do not cancel each other out – they result in substantial net loss.

The long view

Is this inevitable, or can something be done?  I am not advocating a move to a command and control system of government, and we must continue to encourage dynamism and innovation in our schools.  I return to my optimistic hope that over time real progress is made, whereby the costs associated with change are wholly worthwhile in terms of the benefits to schools and pupils.  However, rapid change motivated by the election cycle is no way to run an education system. 

Instead, whenever large scale reforms are being made it is the responsibility of governments to gather cross-party consensus wherever possible.  This approach is not unrealistic, and similar efforts have been made (admittedly with mixed success) in other domains such as development of High Speed Two rail link and of a social care system fit for the 21st Century.  These are both challenges that must be addressed on timescales beyond that of any government, and so any long-term solution requires political consensus.  There is no good economic case for building half a rail link between London and Birmingham after all, despite what residents of Aylesbury may say.  So, if we can apply such common sense to transport and care for the elderly, why not to our children and schools?

A moment of calm

An obvious example is all the heat and light being generated by the current reforms to qualifications and the curriculum.  It is unthinkable that in 2015 just as these changes are bedding in, a new government comes to power and starts to reverse them (or even simply talks about reversal), so that all of the disruption will have been for nothing.  This would simply not be fair to schools or the pupils affected, and the responsibility for avoiding such a scenario lies with all parties.

Ofqual’s announcement last month of delays to the current reforms are therefore to be welcomed. However, the coalition government must do more to build consensus around the changes it is making, and to moderate its proposals accordingly.  And Tristram Hunt should build on the good start he has made with a similar commitment not to undergo a wholesale deconstruction of these changes – on the understanding that Labour party views will have been taken into account.

My optimism may well have slipped into naivety, but the education of our children is far too important to be a political football.  It is little wonder that we live in an age where young people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics and government.   All parties should sign-up to a pledge on the standards by which any educational reform should be conducted, covering aspects such as the pace of change, the nature of consultation, and a commitment to obtaining political consensus where possible.

Perhaps then we’ll be able to confine policy hysteresis to the history books where it belongs.