Articles It’s Democracy, Stupid

It’s Democracy, Stupid

The post-mortem on the UK’s General Election continues. Sue Littlemore, Chief Executive of the Education Media Centre and former BBC Education Correspondent, found that politicians ignored research, but journalists were interested in finding evidence.

Learning lessons from the 2015 election campaign is fashionable at the moment. Here’s one to consider: if your goal is to inspire more evidence based public policy, you won’t do it by convincing the politicians or their policy advisers.

Making it easy to access education research

My organisation, the Education Media Centre, EMC, makes it easy for journalists to reach and report research evidence on the education news stories they are covering. In our first 18 months we have had great success and, for example, a pre-election briefing on the evidence behind education pledges in manifestos, between leading education academics, including Professor Chris Husbands and Professor Baroness Alison Wolf ,and national education correspondents, generated coverage in more than 100 news outlets across the UK.

The success of the EMC, suggests journalists, at least some of the time, are interested in education research and evidence. Judging by the education election manifestos, you might conclude politicians and their advisers are not.

To list a few examples: there is no clear evidence that academies raise pupil attainment; yet more free schools, a type of academy, were promised by the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats promised to extend entitlement to free school meals, even though the same researchers,who carried out the original pilots, concluded an expansion of the scheme was not supported by the current evidence. Labour’s plan to reduce university fees could also be challenged by academic studies which suggest the current funding package has not had a significant impact on young, at least, applicants to higher education.

Winning votes but ignoring the evidence

“Little evidence behind manifesto pledges” ,a blog by Durham University’s Professor Stephen Gorard  and Dr Beng Huat See, was published by the EMC. It was shared on twitter by Dr Beng Huat See, who urged, “Need to take more heed of what the evidence says rather than what our gut feelings are. Sometimes counterintuitive.”

Lots of research evidence does challenge our gut instincts, and that’s one important reason why politicians and their policy advisers will, especially during an election campaign, feel obliged to overlook it. Why? To misquote Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaigning message: “It’s democracy, stupid.”

There is good evidence to question  any plan to reduce class sizes or to extend  grammar schools; but to criticise politicians for pledging to pursue these policies wherever and whenever they are popular is to miss the obvious fact about democracies and elections: they are all about winning voter support and, therefore, popular opinion.

More needs to be done to convince the public

Many academics and researchers aspire to influence politicians and their policy advisers. Many academics and researchers criticise politicians for “ignoring the evidence”. Unless the researchers themselves do more to convince the public – the voters – of the findings of their studies, they make it easy, even necessary, for politicians to reject their academic evidence.

Capturing the attention, let alone the empathetic understanding, of the public is hard. The core and charitable purpose of the Education Media Centre is “To advance the education of the public in education policy, theory and practice, particularly by the dissemination of academic research about education via the media.” It’s not an elegant phrase, but its significance is the EMC tries to get education research into the media only because we want people to know about it and, perhaps, become better informed as a result.

For those of us interested in evidence-informed policy-making, a good lesson of the 2015 General Election is that we should resist complaining about the perceived failings of politicians and start finding imaginative and effective ways of reaching the public. Evidence may be important to improving our lives; but, in a democracy, if people, never mind politicians, don’t know about it, understand it, believe it or care about it then evidence hardly matters at all .


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.