UCL Public Policy


Writing evidence notes Professor Lindsey Macmillan

The key is to ensure that very busy people can understand the main point in the first few sentences.

UCL Portico

22 June 2019

Policy Context: In 2016 Theresa May consulted on expanding the provisions of selection by ability at age 11 in secondary schools in England. This led to a number of debates before the policy was eventually dropped after the 2017 election.

Example: Evidence summary of access to and the impact of grammar schools sent to all speakers in a House of Lords debate on the topic.

The debate about expanding selection by ability in education at age 11 is often known as the ‘zombie policy’, due to the fact that it keeps coming back. Those in favour of expanding selection by ability see them as engines of social mobility. They have often either experienced grammar schools themselves, or close friends or relatives have, and (wrongly) attribute any successes thereafter to their experiences at school.

The empirical evidence on grammar schools is overwhelmingly conclusive: grammar schools take very few students from deprived backgrounds, and they exacerbate inequalities, meaning that they are very bad for social mobility.

Given the regular use of anecdotal evidence in the debate on selective schools that was happening at the time, led by the Prime Minister, I sent a high-level review of the empirical evidence on grammar schools when they were being debated by the House of Lords.

The idea was to ensure that people speaking on the topic were armed with the facts, and could rely on the hard evidence to challenge the emotional arguments.

Using a list of all scheduled speakers for the debate, I sent out a three page note, summarising the main findings from each strand of literature on the topic. This included a top level summary at the start to catch their attention, with the details from each study, in simple language, and the associated references, below.

The key is to ensure that very busy people can understand the main point in the first few sentences. Limiting the use of any academic jargon and keeping to simple accessible terms makes it more likely that the notes will be of use.

The note was very well received. For example Lord Jim Knight responded stating “That was really useful. There will be plenty more to be done to stop this - we should keep in touch.”