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What is the cost of massive change?

In the latest blog in our series on outline principles for the future of education, Tim Oates CBE discusses and explores how reforming qualifications and assessment and implementing massive change to the system could affect the education sector as a whole. 

Lightbulbs on a purple background. One lightbulb is lit.

There’s a lot of discussion of fundamental reform at the moment  in qualifications, in curriculum, in routes, in choice. In many things. And there’s a lot of improvement we can do… we know in England that from our domestic data on between-school and within-school variation, and regional data. We know that vocational provision in England is not up to the standard of leading nations, although things are improving. We know that social background continues in England to heavily influence attainment. These are real problems… some of them long standing, and we need to continue to implement effective strategy to remedy them. The evidence is there on the problems, and on the reform action which we can consider.  

Arguments about 'massive change'

On the current arguments about ‘massive change’  much of them polarised  I’ve written elsewhere about the need to scrutinise the motivation behind each set of suggestions. Things are not always what they seem on the surface. And I’ve written about what happens if we don’t properly scrutinise the evidence for specific elements of reform  we can enter Frank Achtenhagen’s ‘Cycle of planned failure’. And we don’t want to be doing that.  

But there also is a startling absence of discussion of the full picture of what reform entails  not just financial costs. We must go into reform with our eyes wide open, understanding all that may unfold, and what might be gained or foregone. Far from being an anti-reform stance, everything I say here is designed to strengthen reform and improvement.  

We need always to consider the impact of reform on equity. Change occupies teachers, trainers and managers – this commitment of time can draw attention and resource away from wider care of learners. Change in aspects such as option choices and routes can disturb established patterns of ‘opt in’ and optimisation of choice, with those least equipped to make choices through low social capital and family support losing out by making suboptimal choices. John Gray’s paradox can cut in: ‘…those best placed to make use of new opportunities for all students are likely to be the most able, thus widening gaps….’. Historically, many countries have experienced exactly this with massive reform. It takes great care and additional resource  particularly in the form of professional development  to avoid these potential pitfalls. 

It is not an argument against massive change, but we need to be clear that massive change pulls capacity out of the system, as teachers, trainers and managers spend time understanding the reform, putting in place new materials and teaching (discarding existing accumulated materials and expertise), adapting their professional practices, and arranging all adjuvant provision such as guidance, support etc. 

Costs of reform

The surface costs of reform are obvious, each of the following demands resource:  

  • Analysis of the nature of problems 
  • Development of policy solutions
  • Enactment of solutions including staff development to ensure fidelity of implementation  

But full audit of costs also should include:  

  1. The cost of necessary substitution: for example, specific qualifications do more than just supply assessment and documented outcomes. They can supply: a clear specification of programme content (including linked learning materials), a statement of standards, an indication of the depth of treatment of content, support to progression and the decisions of selectors, motivation for learners, and quality assurance of education for the State, for parents, and othersIf withdrawing a set of qualifications is being considered, or a radically revised set is being considered, it is essential to know how these functions will be delivered (substituted), if they are deemed important - which these certainly are in mature education systems.
  2. The cost of public understanding of new arrangements, particularly if new complexity in arrangements arises such as funding, routes through the system, etc. 
  3. The cost of losing or discarding established teaching and learning materials and the creation of new ones, including the labour costs and opportunity costs of teachers needing to focus on development of new lesson plans, materials etc.
  4. The cost of losing established expertise, knowledge and skill  for example if the reform requires new approaches to teaching, management etc. and the cost of acquisition of new expertise, knowledge and skill.  
  5. The cost of adjuvant actions  e.g. change in routes in systems can give rise to additional guidance requirements; change in school admissions policy can include an increase in road usage and pressures on public transport.  
  6. The human cost of reform  role loss and change in the labour force, including the increased pressures which come from reform.   

And, often forgotten during the enthusiastic proposed educational reform are the costs of retrieval funding and retrieval action should reforms go wrong or fail to deliver. Which can be huge, in financial and human terms. And of course, history gives us some worrying examples of cost-cutting reforms which, when audited with precision, actually have increased costs.  

All of this is this is not an argument against the improvement of education and training. Far from it, it is an argument for highly evidence-based, well managed change, but change which anticipates the full costs of massive change. In the UK, we have a history of some extraordinarily effective public policy  the 1944 Education Act, the establishment of the National Health Service, the Clean Air Acts. So, if fundamental reform is considered necessary, we should follow precedent.

About the author

Tim Oates


Tim Oates CBE is Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge University Press & Assessment. Tim, who joined Cambridge Assessment in May 2005, was the Head of Research and Statistics at the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency for the best part of a decade. In 2011 he Chaired the Expert Panel as part of the Department of Education's National Curriculum Review. Tim was awarded CBE in the 2015 New Year's Honours for services to education.