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Practitioners’ experiences of implementing national education policy at the local level: an examination of 16-19 policy

What do we want to know?

The initial review question used to identify and map the research literature in this area was as follows:

What do practitioners say about their experiences of implementing national post-16 education policies at the local level?


Then a specific question for in-depth review was identified as follows:

What do practitioners in FE colleges say about the conditions, attitudes and implementation of national education policy?

Who wants to know and why?

This review’s overall aim was to support the further development of teaching and learning. Educational policy implementation has been the focus for this review. Specifically, this review looked at post-16 practitioners’ perceptions of implementing national education policy at the local level. The findings of the review are relevant to the tasks of framing, presenting and administering effective policy: that is to be able to harness the potential of local settings in the pursuit of improving teaching and learning.

The review focused on the sector of post-compulsory education and training (PCET) and identified a number of national policies that have recently been implemented in the sector. The attitudes of local practitioners and their descriptions of their local context/conditions of work in relation to the policy implementation process were sought.

The review is therefore relevant to those working on education policy formation, its implementation, and managers and practitioners in local educational settings. The review examines the impact of a number of national policies that have recently been implemented in the PCET sector. The attitudes of local practitioners and their descriptions of their local context / conditions of work in relation to the policy implementation process were sought. The results identify a number of issues and strategies that could contribute to the future development of education policy and its effective implementation in local settings. 

What results were found?

The in-depth reviewing of the identified studies and subsequent synthesis of findings generated the following findings.

  • National policy is mediated in virtually all local settings. The form that ‘local policy’ takes can vary between institutions and between levels within the same institution. Practitioners will commonly meet and implement local policy. There is currently a widespread tendency for policy in its local form to appear in a marketised form.
  • Practitioners commonly respond pragmatically to local policymaking it work for the benefit of their institution/learners.
  • Practitioners faced a key challenge when implementing policy at the local level: balancing the duties placed on them by both marketising and pedagogic discourses. Tutors, in particular, felt that they struggled to make space to exercise pedagogic judgement and agency in a context they perceived to be dominated by marketised discourses.
  • Practitioners, and tutors in particular, identified concerns about their ability to exercise pedagogic judgement and agency. The view was widely expressed that this aspect of practice was the under-exploited resource in local settings. It was perceived that the way in which local policy was articulated operated to constrict the exercise of pedagogic judgement and agency.
  • Tutors sometimes expressed attitudes of professional and pedagogic insecurity. That is, they were sometimes unsure that they had struck the best balance between pedagogic and marketised priorities. This insecurity could be seen to be stimulated by three factors: the demands for more and more flexibility, a context of policy initiative overload, and a local tendency to devalue pedagogic principles and valorise marketised discourse.

However, the messages in the research are neither simple, nor conclusive. The process of drawing conclusions from the cross-comparison of studies is complicated by four factors. First, there is a lack of conceptual clarity surrounding the key terms framing the ten studies. Second, the studies can be located in different, if often overlapping, theoretical frameworks. Third, policy is mediated in almost all contexts and levels. These factors introduce a level of conceptual variability into the studies that impinges upon the veracity of the systematised conclusions reached. However, it should also be noted that these dimensions of variability are to some extent mitigated by the striking similarity of the issues and concerns raised by practitioners across contexts. Finally, the sector itself is widely recognised to be under-researched. This fact limited the number of studies available.

What are the implications?

The review found that practitioners, at whatever institutional level, saw themselves to implementing policy in contextually sensitive ways for the benefit of the organisation and learners. However, tutors, in particular, expressed concerns about their ability to exercise pedagogic agency in local contexts congested with competing ‘policy’ demands, commonly expressed in marketised forms.

The Review Group interpreted these findings to suggest that the current preferred levers of policy implementation carry unforeseen negative consequences for tutor performance, restricting agency and a sense of responsibility.

The Review Group also suggest that novel forms continuing professional development could be utilised to enhance local pedagogic agency and initiative, in the service of more effective policy implementation.

Implications for policy

The review of practitioner comments identified a widespread concern that, at the local level, space is not being made for tutors to exercise pedagogic judgement and agency. The implication for policymakers is how to exploit this under-utilised resource more effectively.

Further, practitioners perceive that they are far removed from policy decisions. They see no way in which their concerns and reflections can contribute to the development of policy. Introducing a practitioner, policymaker and policy administrator forum would not only address this perceived sense of isolation but it could also feed into a virtuous circle where the advantages of a continuous improvement could be realised, both at the level of policy and practice.

The literature also implies that support for communities of professional practice could further enhance standards of teaching and learning and the quality of policy implementation at the local level.

Implications for practice

There was a widespread view that space to exercise pedagogic judgement and agency is currently restricted. There was also a widespread perception that the greater opportunity to exercise pedagogic judgement and agency would improve learner performance. The implication is that pedagogic spaces need to be organised in new ways, which articulate policy in forms sympathetic to the exercise of pedagogic judgement and agency.

Implications for research

This review has found that the mediation of policy in local settings is crucial to the implementation process. A systematic review of the forms of mediation would potentially throw further light onto the local factors affecting the policy implementation process. That is, how is policy rearticulated locally? How are decisions reached about the meaning of policy texts? How are the specific implications of policy for local settings found?

This review has found that there is a widely held view among practitioners that an increased opportunity to exercise pedagogic judgement and agency would raise standards of teaching and learning in PCET.

Systematic reviews could be conducted into (a) how pedagogic judgement and agency is understood, and (b) what impact raised pedagogic judgement and agency has on standards of teaching, learning and achievement in PCET judgement. This latter study would require cross-comparison across EU states.

How were the results obtained?

A systematic search of the literature was undertaken to identify studies that related to the review question. This search aimed to identify research which had been undertaken in post-compulsory education and training (PCET) settings and reported and analysed the views of practitioners about their role in operationalising policy in their local context.

The initial collection of 512 reports was refined using keyword screening. The screening process identified 62 reports for more detailed analysis. Initial coding of these 62 reports was used to generate a map that identified a number of themes around which the reports could be clustered.

Collaborative discussion resulted in the selection of a sub-set of 10 studies (represented in 14 reports) for in-depth review. The detailed analysis of these studies forms the base of the report’s findings and recommendations.

The EPPI-Centre’s reference numbers for these reports are 1602R (Report) and 1602T (Technical Report). The full citation is:

Nixon L, Gregson M, Spedding T, Mearns A (2008) Practitioners’ experiences of implementing national education policy at the local level. Technical report. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London

  
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