External education policy referencing: England and East Asia

20151021 Feature

The HEAD Foundation organised a roundtable session on 21 Oct 2015 on the topic of policy borrowing, to discuss the current trends and issues in the field. The discussion involved experts in the field from UCL Institute of Education, University College London – Prof Paul Morris and Dr Christine Han – who have extensive research experience in the field of external education policy referencing. Joining in the roundtable discussion and offering their perspectives were Professors Maria Manzon and Jason Tan from National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore, as well as Dr Teng Siao See from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Singapore.

Policy borrowing is seen as a quest to identify and learn the features of best practices based on evidence seen on “what works” in an area. Prof Morris argues that this practice is viewed as a strategy for legitimising policy directions already chosen by some countries – in this case, England.

Using a case study, Prof Morris’ project analyses external policy referencing, with England as the ‘borrower’ and Hong Kong the ‘lender’. The objective was to discuss the role of external policy referencing in the policy making process, and how policy referencing is discussed in the English context. The study focuses on the selective use of policy referencing, and the very different manifestations of its success in different contexts.

A key point of the discussion was how the over-reliance on the PISA and TIMSS reports about the performance of East Asian school systems (for example, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai) has triggered a global race. The current belief among political leaders in the UK is that achievement in the international benchmark assessments is a way to compete in the global knowledge economy:

High PISA scores → Better Human Capital →Better Economy


One country trying to emulate another model in different context is not an effective method for policy referencing, as Prof Morris underscored. Instead, analysis of the processes involved in the best practices transfer is crucial for deeper analysis and understanding.

If countries in the ASEAN region were to “copy” practices to compete in the race based on the OECD assessment reports, it could be irrelevant. What may be essential is to reference other countries’ policies by keeping in mind the aims of education in the country, relevance within the country contexts in which the systems operate and having a long term view of education reform beyond achievement in the benchmark assessments.

It is important for policy framing and actions to be based on deeper analyses of what the underlying data (in this case, the PISA and TIMSS) mean instead of superficial and selective identification of best practices.

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