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Using Bacchi to Analyse Policy in Education

Editorial introduction:

I am delighted to share this latest #BELMASblog with you, which reports on governance research in Scotland. The blog focusses on how policy can play a key part in shaping the role of the headteacher. Here, the authors share how they used Bacchi’s problem-representation framework to analyse a series of policy documents relating to governance reform.

It will be interesting to see what the authors learn from their next research endeavours as they engage with headteachers themselves and educators involved in headship development. If you’d like to know more about this research, then do check out the authors’ MiE article, details of which are included in the blog references. You can also connect with the Future of Headship team using @UofGHeadship.

We look forward to hearing your comments about this blog – do share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #BELMASblog.


Christine Forde, Deirdre Torrance, Alison Mitchell, Julie Harvie and Margery McMahon, University of Glasgow.

In The Future of Headship, a research project being conducted at the University of Glasgow, we see policy as a crucial context in shaping the experiences and practice of headteachers. We have been exploring the impact of the current policy reform programme, The Review of Education Governance (SG 2016) on the headteacher role in Scottish education. This programme includes The Headteachers’ Charter (SG 2018) and is having a significant impact on the role of the headteacher. A longstanding concern in Scottish education policy has been the issue of the limited attainment of a significant number of pupils. In previous policy programmes this issue was referred to as ‘the bottom 20%’ and in the current reform programme, ‘a poverty related attainment gap’. We have been exploring why the Scottish Government looked to address this enduring attainment gap by radically altering the roles of local authorities (LAs) and headteachers through the reform of education governance. We looked for ways to analyse the evolution of the ideas underpinning this policy reform programme.

Governance had not been a significant policy issue in Scotland previously. With minor changes, governance and the settled relationships of this three-tiered system were largely based on the Education Act of 1980. Each tier had a clearly defined role: central government setting policy and providing funding, the LAs responsible for the provision and oversight of education within their locality. The headteacher, described as an officer of the LA, was held to account for the performance of their school. The proposals contained in the Scottish Government’s consultation documents launched in 2016, would alter radically the relationships between these three tiers, particularly by limiting the role of the 32 LAs and extending the responsibilities of the headteacher. The initial policy consultation documents proposed a radical reconstruction of education governance, which would be backed by legislation. Indeed, the Scottish Government (2017) published a consultation on the terms of a new Education Bill. However, following a significant challenge to these proposals especially from the LAs, the Scottish Government (2018) stood back from legislation and instead, reached an agreement on reforms, which included two major developments, the Headteachers’ Charter and the Regional Improvement Collaboratives, establishing consortia of LAs working on attainment and improvement.

Given this dynamic backdrop, our research team was interested in exploring how the initial ideas for change evolved in later policy documents. We had previously used Bacchi’s (2012) ‘What’s the problem represented to be’ (WPR) as a framework to review the literature on social justice leadership and professional development (Torrance et al. 2021), allowing us to probe critically this body of work. Therefore, we decided to use this framework to analyse the set of governance reform policy documents. Bacchi puts forward six questions which take you through a detailed process of analysis, surfacing power relationships and assumptions.

  • What is the problem represented to be in a specific policy?
  • What presuppositions or assumptions underlie this representation of the problem?
  • How has this representation of the problem come about?
  • What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences? Can the problem be thought about differently?
  • What effects are produced by this representation of the problem?
  • How/where has this representation of the problem been produced, disseminated and defended? How could it be questioned, disrupted and replaced?

The Bacchi approach allowed us to probe in-depth the construction of ‘the problem’ that this reform programme was intended to solve. Working through each question including those on gaps and silences, took us back time and time again to the sequence of policy documents. Bacchi’s framework enabled us to track the way in which the problem was represented, evolved through the set of documents. Initially, the often-repeated problem of ‘the poverty-related attainment gap’ was constructed as a challenge to the fundamental values of Scottish education. However, over the cycle of consultations, responses and proposals, ‘the problem’ evolved into one of education governance. It was this that needed to be fixed. The ‘real’ problem driving this reform programme, was the way in which LAs (independently – as per the terms of the 1980 Act) enacted their governance role, particularly their management of education in their locality and their funding decisions.

Using Bacchi’s WPR framework highlighted the tensions between the different tiers and the potential impact on headteachers. Now we look to build on this analysis. Our next step in the research is to explore this reform programme with a group of system leaders and teacher educators involved in headship development and with groups of headteachers, gathering their perceptions and lived experiences in addressing the terms of the Headteachers’ Charter. We would recommend the Bacchi WPR framework as a powerful analytical tool supporting the critical examination of education policy.

Christine Forde is Emeritus Professor at Glasgow University where she held a personal chair in Leadership and Professional Learning. Her research interests cover headship, middle leadership in schools, educational leadership development, professional learning and equality in education. Current research includes participating in the ISLD network on social justice leadership; leadership, governance and small systems; and the development and practice of headship and of middle leadership in schools. Orchid number:

Deirdre Torrance is Senior Research Fellow in Educational and School Leadership in the School of Education, University of Glasgow. She currently leads the Future of Headship Research Programme in the School of Education. Deirdre was designated Honorary Fellow of University of Edinburgh, recognising her national and local contributions to education and research. Deirdre is engaged in numerous collaborative research including the ISLDN and writing projects around policy, leadership preparation, school leadership and management, and social justice leadership. Orchid ID:

Alison Mitchell is Headteacher of Rosshall Academy, a comprehensive state secondary school in Glasgow and seconded to Headteacher in Residence at the University of Glasgow, contributing to educational leadership preparation and research. Her professional context and experience motivate many research interests, including ethical school leadership, education policy and professional collaboration in education.

Julie Harvie is a Lecturer in Educational Leadership and Programme Leader for the In and Into Headship programmes at the University of Glasgow. She is a member of the National Design Group for educational leadership within Scotland. Julie is the Depute of the Educational Leadership and Policy Research and Teaching Group and Quality Enhancement Officer for the School of Education. Twitter handle is @julieharvie67.

Margery A. McMahon is Head of the School of Education at University of Glasgow and Professor of Educational Leadership. Professor McMahon played a key role in the development and implementation of the national leadership strategy for schools, including leading the scoping team for the establishment of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. Professor McMahon serves as an adviser and consultant to national and international agencies on leadership development and institutional capability building. Orchid:


Bacchi C (2012) Why study problematizations? Making Politics Visible. Open Journal of Political Science 2(1):1-8.

Scottish Government (2016) Empowering teachers, parents and communities to achieve Excellence and Equity in Education – A Governance Review. Edinburgh: SG.

Scottish Government (2017) Empowering Schools: A Consultation on the Provisions of the Education (Scotland) Bill. Edinburgh: SG.

Scottish Government (2018) Education Reform – Joint Agreement. Edinburgh: SG.

Torrance, D., Forde, C., King, F., & Razzaq, J. (2021). What is the problem? A critical review of social justice leadership preparation and development. Professional Development in Education, 47(1), 22-35.


Forde, C., Torrance, D., Mitchell, A., McMahon, M., & Harvie, J. (2021). Education governance and the role of the headteacher: The new policy problem in Scottish education. Management in Education, 36(1), 18-24. DOI 08920206211057348.