Searching for ‘what works’: Knowledge-Policy Configurations in Sex Education

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This excerpt is retrieved from a report on the public action relative to the introduction of sex education in schools in Portugal in the period between 1984 (date of the first decree approved by the Parliament on the matter – Law 3/84) and 2009 (date of the last decree passed by Parliament on the matter – Law 60/2009). The text gives an interpretative analysis on two main knowledge-policy configurations identified along the making of school sexual education policies in Portugal: «committees of experts», and «good practices».

The connections between knowledge and policy, and the configurations that represent them, depend on multiple factors. These factors are both contextual (i.e dominant paradigms, modes of regulation, political situations, characteristics of the actors, etc.), as well as intrinsic to the nature of the policy in question (i.e the degree of conflict among the various cognitive references at play, the integration, or rupture with, the existing knowledge regime, dynamics of coalitions, and discourses, generated in the public action). In the case of sex education in schools (Figueiredo, Barroso and Carvalho, 2010) the process of “politicization of the knowledge” and “impregnation of knowledge in policy,” or “knowledgeization” of policy (Bajomi & alli., 2009: 66) took on different forms throughout the period under analysis, but it is possible to identify a continuous pattern around two predominating configurations, the first being “committees of experts,” and the second comprising of “best practices.”

Regarding the first configuration (committees of experts) it is worth noting that the government’s action in the “sex education” field was marked by a set of guidelines produced by the State. These guidelines translated into the creation of programs, networks, working groups, texts which were aimed at coordinating, “guiding,” and supporting the actions of the institutions dependent on the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. These institutions, and modes of organization, are relatively unconnected from the administrative apparatus (although they come under their influence) and are the ideal platforms for cognitive and socio-professional “miscegenation” (knowledge, organizations, and practices). Moreover, the management of these projects was entrusted to individuals who were acknowledged as having special competence on the issue (usually from within academia, but in one case coming from the Catholic Church) and who became, together with other experts, staff members belonging to the administration. The existence of these committees of experts, given that they were outsiders, and because of their composite nature functioned as the producers and legitimizers of policies. But these committees of experts also paved the way for the participation of actors linked to networks among these experts, both in academia and in the non-government organizations, as well as in the schools themselves. Yet, it is not only the nature and role played by these committees that made them the ideal platform for the relationship between knowledge and policy. Many of these experts are “specialized militants,” or activists (who put the knowledge at the service of social intervention), or “academics who like to involve themselves in policy” (and to influence government decisions). This does not mean that the sex education policies are “commanded” by experts (as many complained about the frustration deriving from the gap between what they argued for and what was done). However, all indications are that they proved to be an ideal tool for government authorities to define “targets” of action, transforming social facts into political problems, testing solutions, and even delaying controversial decisions.

With regards to the second type of configuration (“best practices”) these constitute not only a production of “tacit knowledge,” but also a transformation of “tacit knowledge” into “explicatory knowledge,” which is an essential condition for its politicization. At the same time while the noun (practices) enable the incorporation of local dimension in policy (using the “local” as a form “of compensatory legitimization” of the “central”), the adjective (“good” or “best”) allows the administration to recover control over the production and application of regulations through the transformation of “certain” practices into rules (deemed to be good) that must be complied with. One must bear in mind that the ”best practices” are the targets of cognitive and regulatory choices by the people who coordinate their conception, those who report them, and those who promote their circulation. The “best practices” are the tools of public action. The practices are, therefore, worked on by technicians, or experts, from the ministries as part of an intervention similar to a conventional mode of regulation which is centered on the examination of processes and appraisal of “how are they doing the work.” Hence, the knowledge that seems to carry the most weight is that which is perceived as useful, and in a given situation seen to be knowledge of a composite nature, markedly methodological, centered on a description and a consensus about “what works.”


  • FIGUEIREDO Carla Cibele, BARROSO João, CARVALHO Luis M (2010). Knowledge and public action: Sex Education in School (1984-2009).
  • BAJOMI Ivan, BERENYI Estzer, NEUMANN Estzer & ViIDA Julia (2009), Governing autonomy: from curricular policies to quality assurance and student assessments, Report Orientation 2, Project Knowandpol, www.knowandpol.eu.

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