Revolution by retweet: The growing influence of social media on education policy

Richard Willis analyses the impact of changing technology on education policymaking

By Richard Willis

05 Jun 2023


I was recently in the attic of my home rummaging through several dusty old books when I came across Educational Policy-Making, a publication by Professor Maurice Kogan. 

As a budding political scientist, I had long wanted to make my mark on the study of politics. To do this, I felt I needed to answer the question: Who and what are the key influences in the making of policy in government?

The blurb on the back of Kogan’s book includes a comment by The Times endorsing it as “one of the best studies of the process and problems of decision making in politics”. Kogan was one of my tutors at university, and I remember him as an established expert on government.

Prior to his academic role, Kogan spent 14 years in the Department of Education and Science (DES). He went on to write numerous other books, including The Politics of Education, which involved him conversing with two former education ministers, Edward Boyle and Anthony Crosland.

With Kogan’s format in mind, I set about interviewing David Blunkett and Ken Baker, arguably two of the most dynamic education secretaries of the 20th century. I used these conversations to form the background to my book, Applying the Lessons of UK National Politics to Everyday Office Life.

During the course of my interviews, I listened to Blunkett and Baker’s comments on the civil service and the press. For example, I probed Blunkett on the issues of power within central government. I wanted to know if the civil service really obstructed policies, as portrayed in the TV comedy Yes, Minister. 

Blunkett chose to speak more about the Treasury and the harmony he experienced between himself and the prime minister, Tony Blair. Baker indicated he was able to win over civil servants in talks “around the table”. 

I wondered whether the two former cabinet members were presenting the truth. But in their shoes, would I openly admit: “The civil servants completely went against all my views and policies, and rode roughshod over me”? Nevertheless, I think the two former education ministers did their best to tell me what actually happened. 

After my talks with Blunkett and Baker, I learnt more about the influence of other ex-education secretaries: Anthony Crosland, Margaret Thatcher, Sir Keith Joseph and Michael Gove. 

Crosland held that it took about two years to get full control over policymaking in the department. 
Thatcher acknowledged the same kind of resistance by admitting she felt very dissatisfied with the civil servants she encountered. Thatcher, together with Joseph, ranked the DES as an “awful” entity. 
Gove was a politician who had not been that close to his civil servants, choosing to follow his own path instead. 

I delved deeper and came across a much more recent study written by the accomplished educational historian, Roy Lowe. He made it abundantly clear that education policy is never made in a vacuum. Lowe’s input concerned the role of the mass media, the press and the lobbyists. They all play their part in shaping the debate. 

But there has been a shift in the way policies are seen. Some education secretaries had more insight than others. 

David Eccles, appointed minister in 1954, was quoted as saying in the Commons that politicians needed to brace themselves for a whole new look at the “secret garden of the curriculum’’. A fortune-teller looking into her crystal ball on Brighton pier could not have put it better.

I went on to read about the influence of the press, which is not to be underrated. The Sun and the Daily Mail still use bite-size arguments to enforce clear messages. These are reinforced by TV, the internet and social media, which have revolutionised the way education policies are framed. 

Twitter has dominated the scene. I came across one political analyst who called it the “central nervous system” of the internet. In the past, citizens had been in the dark. Now social media allows voters to easily express their opinions and demands. 

In the Netherlands, laws relating to the number of teaching hours students are required to follow were moulded by social media. Closer to home, measures to have defibrillators in all English schools owe much to a campaign run by the Oliver King Foundation which, to get its message across, relied heavily on Twitter and Facebook.

I wanted to know if I could discover a statement made by the UK Department for Education officially encouraging the use of an online presence affecting decision making. I did, and soon stumbled upon an endorsement of this sort of digital involvement. The DfE duly acknowledges that civil servants do their best to “read all tweets” and “pass on any helpful suggestions to relevant colleagues”. 

Some of this may seem trivial, but the obvious is not always clear. There has to be an admission that these forces are applicable to policymaking and what is happening now. 

The impact of modern technology is valued by Alan J Daily, an academic at the University of California, who regards social media as adding “a new ingredient to the educational and policymaking process”.

Tweets can share news, opinions, web links and discussions in a highly accessible forum. 
Others choose to look at the dangers of social media. Lowe warns of its weaknesses and potential for harm. He claims social media has caused an “implosion of the American electoral system” resulting in what has become a “cynical exploitation of Twitter”. 

Gillian Keegan, the present education secretary, was hacked in recent months when her Twitter account received some unwanted bizarre changes. 

On balance, I feel that policymaking has been enriched by the opportunities for political expression that social media allows. 

In retrospect, I am conscious the use of social media in Kogan’s time was well off the political radar. That was no fault of his own. Yet, since the 1960s, educational reform has taken a huge leap forward. 
Views, opinions, and values in our democracy through social media encompass a whole new meaning to the scope and capacity of those able and willing to contribute. 

Richard Willis is a visiting professor at the University of Sussex 

Share this page