The fruits of democracy

Reclaiming Education (Nov 15th 2014)

The theme of the excellent Reclaiming Education meeting in Birmingham on 15th November was ‘priorities for the next government’ and one of the key questions raised was: how do we ensure that our education system responds to what people want from it? How should public education be accountable to the public who fund it and should benefit from it? In other words: what is the place of democracy in education?

Speaking at the meeting, Laura McInerney, deputy editor of Academies Week, emphasised the need for greater transparency. This is certainly vital in a context where so many of the decisions that matter are taken far from the public gaze, providing much scope for abuse of power and even corruption. We need tenacious and well-informed investigative journalists like Laura to shine a light into the darker recesses of the new education state and drag decision-making into the public domain.

But what are we to do with this greater knowledge when we get it? Being better informed is only the first step. It needs to lead to the possibility of change and we need the channels which make change possible. We cannot rely on the unaccountable to start acting in the public interest consistently without actually making them accountable. We need to think about how to create democratic structures which build in accountability and the possibility of policy change through open debate and Richard Hatcher, speaking at the same meeting, offered us a range of exciting ideas about how new democratic structures might evolve.

The commitment to locally elected education authorities of some kind runs through many of the Reclaiming Education principles, particularly (2) No school should be allowed to choose its pupils and (5) All schools within the same area should work together. We desperately need system leadership as a counterbalance to institutional autonomy within a somewhat chaotic market; giving elected bodies at a local or regional level a planning, oversight, arbitration and monitoring role in order to ensure consistency and fairness in admissions, school organisation, choice, competition and collaboration within a local area.

However, not everyone is convinced of the benefits of more democracy. The main concerns about encouraging a renaissance of local democratic involvement in education seem to be:

1. We can’t just go back to local authority ‘control’: Local authorities lost direct control of schools in the 1980’s and no one is arguing for a return to the kind of micro-management which was possible before then. There is nothing intrinsically old-fashioned about democracy. We can develop modern, streamlined ways to involve people meaningfully in decision-making at the appropriate level from the neighbourhood to the region.

2. Some local authorities were not effective: While this is true, it is not an argument against democracy but for safeguards and powers for higher levels of government to be able to intervene rapidly and decisively if local authorities are clearly unable to perform effectively.

3. More democracy is too complicated or too expensive:  ‘We’ll never all agree’ is not an argument against debate and consensus-building. Modern communication technologies give us the possibility of connecting and involving large numbers of people rapidly and at low cost and elected bodies no longer require large bureaucracies to implement policy or monitor performance.

4. Policies will swing too wildly when political control changes: Local discretion clearly needs to be set in the context of clear national policies and entitlements and this should safeguard against disruptive changes. But it is reasonable to expect elections to lead to policy change, otherwise what’s the point of voting?

We have to acknowledge that education is deeply political. The big decisions about system aims, the curriculum and school organisation are political decisions and handing them to ‘non political’ experts doesn’t make them any less so. They need to be contestable and ultimately this requires elections and an active, passionate and well-informed electorate.

Having elected authorities with an education role would re-open the space for vibrant local public debate about education which we have lost. Local communities would be able to challenge and shape their local education system and these debates would inform the policies of political parties who should be responding to popular demands.

There is a democratic deficit in English education and those most affected are those with the least power and the most to gain from good public education. Schools minister Nick Gibb spoke recently of the ‘fruits of autonomy’.  If we are to address this democratic deficit we urgently need to plant the seeds of the ‘fruits of democracy’.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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