The Dark Art of Policy Assimilation

This weekend, we are reminded that the past is a stern but benevolent tutor. On a bright, calm Friday in May, we remembered the tragedy of conflict and paused to show our gratitude for 75 years of peace between old enemies, now friends. Remembering, we hope, will help us avoid the mistakes of the past.

2020 holds other anniversaries, much less significant, but worth noting as they pass. 50 years ago this August, a new government, faced with a bleak economic outlook, passed a policy which would not only be used as a weapon against the party for decades to come, but would, for some, forever define the Minister who put her name to the Act that carried it through Parliament. The policy: an end to universal free milk for school children. The politician: Margaret Thatcher, then Secretary of State. The title ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’ was coined, and the policy dogged her for the rest of her career.

This infamous policy is perhaps one of the best known education policies of modern times. Strictly speaking, it was a purely economic policy aimed at drastically reducing public expenditure, but schools were being told they must stop doing something which they believed to be in the best interests of children, and the policy must have felt to many teachers like an affront to their moral purpose.

The Milk Snatcher policy was a signal that the hidden-garden of schooling was about to have its walls pulled down, for better or worse. It foreshadowed an era of increased centralisation of education policy, where the autonomy enjoyed by teachers and schools in the previous century rapidly came to an end. I was born to an almost milkless educational world, and by the time I finished secondary school, the power-grab was in full swing, with the launch of a National (!) Curriculum and the GCSE qualification. By the time I completed my teacher training in 1995, the education landscape had changed dramatically. The twin-beasts of Ofsted and league tables roamed the land, and the education market opened its doors for business.

But I’m not going to tell you the whole story of educational reform in England since 1970: you can find that elsewhere. This blog is about why senior leaders need to know a little about the history of national education policy. Despite being an advocate for leaders to be knowledgeable, I don’t believe that there can ever be a required ‘curriculum’ for school leaders in the sense of a knowledge base which all school leaders should master. As Mary Kennedy notes in relation to attempts to do this for teaching, you will soon run aground as the domain of knowledge is vast. Also, each senior leader would require a very different curriculum depending on their role and school context. This is one reason that Kennedy suggests a ‘persistent problems’ approach whereby knowledge is valued, but in relation to tackling the universal dilemmas faced by those performing the role. One such persistent problem for school leaders is how they make sense of national policy requirements, and how they choose to enact them (or not) in their schools. This aspect of a school leader’s role is critical to the success and well-being of a school, and cuts across every job description and school type. To my mind, understanding how school leaders have coped with the waves of policy which have swept over the English education system in the last half-century, and what the fate of these policies has been, is as close as we’ll get to powerful knowledge for school leaders.

We’ll come back to the problem of policy enactment later, and what I mean by ‘making sense’, but let me pick up my story and these matters will hopefully become clear.

In 2005, I took on my first senior leader post. It was an exhilarating time to do so as the policy madness was in full swing (I’ve had a dig at Thatcher, now its your turn Blair). New policies were like catnip to me: a new assistant head trying to make his mark. I enthusiastically implemented the latest initiative, battling the staffroom ‘cynicism’ (read ‘wisdom’, depending on your point of view), and bringing forth ‘change’, as I was required to do: by government, by my boss, and by my own standards of what school leaders are meant to do.

The noughties saw an insane number of policy initiatives come and go: a new National Curriculum, the academy programme, personalised learning, PLTS, Diplomas, Every Child Matters, work related learning, Specialist Schools, enterprise learning, AfL, APP, Sure Start, extended services, multiple intelligencies, gifted and talented, SEAL, learning styles, learning pathways, student voice and an enthusiasm for ed tech, to name just the ones that spring to mind. There were quangos to match (later ‘burned’ by Gove in his bonfire of bureaucracy) and large sums of money ‘invested’ in many of these. To give one example, the ‘personalised learning’ agenda (which was launched with a bang, then fizzled away like a firework) was backed by £1bn in 2004 when it was launched, and £1.5bn the year after.

I am not saying that these policies were without merit. But which are still in place? Why? What might we learn from this?

What did it feel like to live through this period of policy proliferation, and how did it change the way we define ourselves as school leaders? Whereas past generations of ‘senior teachers‘ took forward into their new senior administrative roles a sense of public service and duty to their local community, subsequent ‘senior managers‘ learnt that their role was to ‘raise standards’, and after that ‘senior leaders‘ came to understand their purpose as delivering change through the enactment of the latest government policy agenda. Notice how the language reflects a change in the identity of those running our schools, which in turn reflects the shifting educational landscape and the centralisation of control. And yet, as educational policy is thought up by policy-wonks at the most distant point from the classroom, we have been convinced of our greater autonomy: but this autonomy is over budgets, buildings and bureaucracy – the business of schooling in the 21st century – not the core purpose of education.

Maguire et al (2013) note that this policy epidemic ‘came at a time when ‘English schools (were) under considerable pressure to fabricate themselves as “extraordinary” – as “strong” or “outstanding”.’ Schools, particularly those rated as less than good by HMI, had to be seen to implement the received wisdom of policy faithfully, whether or not they perceived it to be in the best interests of their students. A new competency for senior leaders arose – the dark art of policy assimilation. Leaders became adept at looking like they had implemented government policy whilst crafting mutations which would serve their school’s agenda and their personal ideology and knowledge of what was required. Policy-makers would wonder why their carefully crafted instruments of change would end up bastardized and fragmented across the system, achieving little of what had been intended. Designed in denial of diversity and complexity, simplistic social-change agendas would be scattered like shards of glass across the school system.

Of course some school leaders were more confident and able than others to shield their schools from the undesirable aspects of mandated policy, and run with the initiatives that served their own agenda. For those with an historic perspective, a more measured response was possible – an awareness that things were once different and will be different again. For me, as a new and naive senior leader, this was a playground with lots of new toys. Hopefully I did more good than harm, but I’m not sure.

Some of the policies listed above were largely ignored, some withered on the vine and others were swept away by austerity. Indeed, the amount of new policy subsided during the period of constrained budgets, as government could provide no financial incentives for their policy proposals, and schools cut the size of their senior teams (the engine room of change initiatives) and were distracted by cost-saving. Over the decade of austerity, the role and identity of school leaders changed again, to become self-styled protectors of services and jobs. Damage limitation became the preoccupation of many, once more compelled to protect that which was under attack (the modern day milk-guardians). To some extent this cleansed school leadership of the notion that it should be subservient to government policy, rather than to its community. School leadership rhetoric reflects this shift: ‘servant leadership’ suddenly makes an appearance in literature and research, an echo of the public service ethos which was at the heart of the profession before the explosion of policy making. Without an historic perspective, such rhetoric sounds fresh and appealing, but there is no such thing as a new idea and, like endless policy initiatives, the loosely-defined domain of leadership will simply morph to reflect the times we live in.

Policies are rarely ‘implemented’. The fate of educational policy is to be ignored, sidelined, marginalised, set aside, assimilated into existing agendas, rationalised as already being in place, interpreted beyond all recognition, resisted by those subject to it, or superficially adopted with a polite doff of the cap to our task-masters. Most national educational policy agendas fail to achieve their objectives. Their effects, if there are any, are echoes around the system – evidence of the ‘good idea’ popping up in unexpected places then disappearing again without trace. Where they do gain traction, other policies are soon invented to correct the ill-effects of the last one: policy waves which sweep over the system. Why? That is a big question which I hope to address at another time, but for now it is enough to note that this happens, and we could do worse than spend some time seeking to understand what is going on. Making sense of the role we play as school leaders in interpreting and enacting educational policy will, I believe, make us wiser and more measured in our actions. It will also give us a stronger sense of our identity and utility: less likely to be a product of our times, or an instrument of a particular ideology or misguided purpose.

Many of the things we believe school leaders should do (our identity) are a product of the times we have lived through and the ideas accepted as ‘true’ by society. We believe that every child matters, therefore there is a moral imperative for leaders to pursue inclusion. We no longer believe that intelligence is fixed, therefore schools can and should ensure that every pupil makes progress. We believe that schools are a powerful instrument for eliminating disadvantage, therefore closing the gap becomes a priority for our education system. We know that schools generate different outcomes, so school improvement becomes the way we win the game. We are no longer merely custodians of a civic institution: we are leaders – say it loud and proud.

Education policy makes schools an instrument of social and economic change, for better or for worse. Do we accept this role without question? And how do we balance it against our other duties and responsibilities?

So normalised has our role in policy enactment become that it becomes heresy to question conventional notions of ‘school improvement’, ‘change management’ and ‘raising standards’. That is not to say that we should reject our responsibility for making the school we lead the best it can be for the students within it and the community we serve, or place it in some state of hibernation, never needing to adapt and evolve. But this is not the same as blindly accepting the prevailing narratives around what purpose schools should play in delivering national policy objectives. We are all sculptors of a better society, not just chisels in the sculptor’s hand.

As I said before, this knowledge is powerful because it enables us to act judiciously and with perspective. All leaders must become adept at the dark art of policy assimilation, and to confront this particular persistent problem we need a little historical knowledge and a whole heap of courage.


Kennedy, M (2015), Parsing the Practice of Teaching
Magure et al (2013), What ever happened to…? ‘Personalised learning’ as a case of policy dissipation
Braun et al (2010), Policy enactments in the UK secondary school: examining policy, practice and school positioning.



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