Carnegie Education

Education advisory groups: policy formation as repertory theatre

Anyone with a passing interest in education will have noticed the increasing frequency with which advisory groups spring up.

Scene from a stage play

In some cases, an advisory board is whipped up to give a veneer of legitimacy to a re-branded organisation; in other cases, it adds a patina of credibility to a collective bid for funding; finally, more frequently (and more worryingly), advisory boards are appended to shifts in government policy for whatever new idea emerges from ministers.

But while recent advisory boards are trumpeted as independent, one thing has not escaped notice: the members are selected from a very small list of government-approved academics and senior school leaders. Hardly the stuff of independence.

But this misses the point. The contemporary advisory group is not a random collection of interested parties selected to properly and legitimately represent the broad interests of the sector; the contemporary advisory group is a matter of performance, a dramaturgical device that has become an established appendage to policy formation. From this point of view, the advisory group is more akin to a repertory theatre company.

In ‘Rep’, a small band of performers work from a standard repertoire of productions, a canon of well-rehearsed dramas. Always ready to perform, the rep theatre company employs a small coterie of actors matched against stock characters such as the ‘leading lady’, ‘leading man’, the ‘character actor’, the villain and the comic relief. With specialisation, the group rehearse well known plays for performance at short notice, whenever a wealthy patron seeks spectacle.

And so is the repertory educational advisory group, similarly predetermined in line with archetypes to perform the drama of policy formation: for example, there is the CEO of a favoured Trust, the Twitter edu-celebrity, a frequently name-dropped SCITT leader and the safe education academic. Having worked together so frequently – sitting on each other’s board in an ever-decreasing circle – this small band of plucky actors perform policy creation in three acts. Firstly, there is the drama of the excited launch and promise of meaningful change for the benefit of everyone; second are the theatrics of ‘listening’ and ‘consultation’, of really wanting to hear from as many voices as possible; finally, the spectacular denouement unveiling the brand-new-absolutely-evidence-informed policy with a coordinated fanfare from all those who eat from the same table.

There, in the end, is the climax that the audience well knew, an ending predetermined by the producers who had, after all, selected the actors carefully to achieve their chosen ending. And we are asked to suspend our disbelief, to marvel at the quality of the acting rather than the ideological underpinnings of the group selection, to share in the triumphs of the performers as they venally furnish their CVs with another grand drama, scramble for the coins sprinkled from their patron, update their head shots, and await the next call to perform on the education policy stage.


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