David Laws: “On education policy, influence can be just as important as decision-making”

Posted On: 
17th October 2017

There is a worrying lack of evidence-based policymaking in UK politics, David Laws says – but his new venture can change all that. The former schools minister talks to James Millar about the coalition, his admiration for Michael Gove and why his new think-tank can do for education what the IFS does for economic policy

Former education minister David Laws
Credit: 
PA Images

It’s somehow appropriate that David Laws, Lib Dem schools minister turned head of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), is behaving a bit like a pupil caught passing notes around the classroom. He’s just published a volume of diaries chronicling his years in the coalition government and in it he tells a few tales out of school.

Whether that be David Cameron throwing mints at ministers across the cabinet table or his description of Philip Hammond as “ghastly” and a “prime time rightwing bozo”.

“Those are pretty low comments,” he confesses with eyes downcast.  But he insists, “There’s no point in doing these things unless you’re pretty candid about them.”

And he claims that while his own thoughts went uncensored, he did leave out comments made by his Conservative coalition colleagues about each other that might prove embarrassing for them now.

The Tory he worked most closely with was Michael Gove at the Department for Education. And while Laws is on record saying Gove was too ideological in his approach, he still sounds like a fan. “Regardless of whether you agree with him or disagree with him on individual issues – and there were certainly quite a few things I disagreed with him on – he is an admirable minister, an admirable driver of change. He’s one of the few radicals in this particular administration and somebody who may be a little underemployed at his current department.” 

Having detonated Boris Johnson’s chances last summer, Gove of course had a tilt at the Tory leadership himself. Would prime minister Gove have worked out well? “I think he has a radical passion for changing society and a bit more of that would be helpful in government at the current time.”

For all the attention on personalities, Laws claims he kept a diary and published it as an insight into how policy is made. And it’s that which drives his new venture, the Education Policy Institute – a thinktank dedicated to bringing evidenced-based rigour to the education sector and set up to ape what the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) does in the economic sphere.

He explains: “One of the things I learned during my time at the Department for Education is there is not enough evidence-based policymaking across government, there isn’t enough evaluation of the work that governments do, and actually it’d be nice if governments commissioned a lot of that work themselves, but they don’t for often understandable reasons of political sensitivity.”

He adds: “Governments often make policy decisions on the basis of assumptions about what might be successful that don’t actually have any evidence base behind them. So I think one has to be realistic and try to persuade governments to evaluate their policies more rigorously, and try to base policies more on what the evidence shows.”

Data is quite the buzzword and Laws accepts that evidence and easy conclusions are far harder to come by in the education sphere than health, for example, where it’s clear if a certain medicine works or not.

But he believes it is possible. “In terms of figuring out what’s had the impact in areas such as attainment, that is complicated because there’ll be multiple factors. But you can, using traditional statistical and scientific techniques, seek to separate out those different factors so it is possible to complete analysis that allows you to see what the driving influences are.”

And the EPI is already doing just that. Their report on grammar schools was widely referenced when Theresa May decided she was going to bring back selective schooling. The EPI report showed the claims made for grammars didn’t stack up. The policy was shelved.

Another report earlier this year crunched the numbers on whether academy chains were more successful than local authority schools and again debunked some of the cheerleading.

And the thinktank filleted each party’s education policies ahead of the general election. Laws, though still a Lib Dem, stepped back from that given his previous role and his determination that the EPI is regarded as party political neutral.

That’s not to say they won’t weigh in on political debates. Tuition fees is the current hot potato. Laws has a conference scheduled for early next year pondering lots of big questions around higher education funding.

He explains why he describes the tuition fees policy implemented by the government of which he was a part as a “failure”. “What we know at the moment is that the increase in tuition fees hasn’t halted the increase in participation and we know that disadvantaged youngsters have still been able to come in to the system, so in those narrow terms the increase in fees hasn’t had the negative effects some critics forecast. But we also know those that advocated the current system and those that implemented it were completely wrong in thinking that it would create a sort of market in fee levels and a pressure for economy.”

The issue illustrates the disconnect between the policy process inside government and the experience of those at the chalkface that Laws often refers to.

For example, he’s just been doing the rounds at party conference. “At the fringe meetings we held, what was really interesting was that nobody from the floor at these meetings raised higher education as a priority part of the education system that they wanted to invest more in. They were talking about early years, they were talking about the schools system, they were looking at further education, they were looking at the ways parents support education; but out in the media and the political world all the debates and announcements have been about how we can invest additional subsidies into our higher education system.

“So there’s a dislocation here.”

But if he’s really bothered about improving the education system, surely the way to go about that is to get back into government?

“I would have loved to have had another five years in government, for sure. Everyone who is really interested in education and education policy likes the idea of being a decision-maker rather than an influencer.

“But influence can be just as important in the long term. What I’m trying to build here is an organisation that’s going to have an influencing impact way beyond my career and life expectancy, and I hope is going to go on contributing to good policymaking for decades to come. And I really think there’s a need for that.”

Changing the way policy is made and building a reputation to rival the IFS is an ambitious aim. But then education is all about fostering ambition, so Laws may be in just the right place.