Burden of Proof: Is evidence really the key to good policy design?

A FETL provocation by Stephen Exley

Evidence-based policy was one of the mantras of the Blair and Brown years and remains a cherished aspiration of policymaking in the UK. It is accepted, usually without much question, as an obviously good thing at which policy in education should aim. However, as Stephen Exley demonstrates in this excellent ‘provocation’, originally published as an article in Tes, things are not as straightforward as this suggests. Is it realistic, or even desirable, to make evidence the main driver of policy, he asks.

This is an essential but rarely asked question, which is why the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) decided to republish Stephen’s article. We are grateful to Tes for its permission to reproduce it here. I very much hope it will stimulate further reflection on this theme, and a more critical approach, in general, to dealing with evidence.

One of the reasons FETL was set up was to strengthen the research and evidence base on which policy in further education could draw. This is undoubtedly important. It is critical that leaders ground their decisions in an understanding of what works and, just as important, what doesn’t. FETL’s mission implies a belief that systems can change, that we can learn both to do things better and to avoid making the same mistakes two or three times – a recurrent problem in a sector where policy memory tends to be short.

But decisions are rarely a matter of applying directly the findings of research or the outcomes of monitoring and evaluation. As Stephen shows, there are numerous other factors in play, including the sector’s mission and values, the local sub-systems in which providers operate and the priorities set by the needs of learners and the resources available to support them.

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