Democratic Education is at a watershed: the creation of new multi-stakeholder, multi-level systems of governance, not only in England but in many OECD member states is placing unprecedented pressures on governing boards. The need for strategic capacity building in increasingly complex education systems not only affects governance structures but places tensions on the balance between the democratic representative role of boards and the need for new skills from education leaders and boards to respond to these environments. This article takes the recent (April 28th 2016) OECD report into education governance in member states combined with the government 2016 White Paper on education to question the future of democratic education and its governance in England.
As the OECD report explains, complexity in education systems is on the rise for a number of reasons; evidence on student achievement is more readily available and increasing levels of marketization in education have produced ever more demanding stakeholders. Ironically, the driver for many of these changes has been produced by the OECD itself with its influential bilateral comparisons such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), (Grek et al. 2009) which have proven so seductive to government and media (Baxter and Rönnberg 2014). These comparators amongst other factors have created a unilateral push to improve and monitor school standards – a push that has led to more rigorous inspection systems and new innovations in education governance and accountability (Baxter 2016).
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in England; a country which has in the short space of only six years implemented the most radical changes to education since the Post War Consensus. These changes have produced a system which builds on the principles of the 1988 Education Reform Act, which introduced Local Management of Schools and paved the way for market principles in education, a move that reflected a broader neoliberal trend in international education systems (Ozga et al. 2013). The present system in England comprises not only existing Local Education Authority (LEA) maintained schools, but a raft of free schools and academies- independent from LEA control and free to innovate in terms of their curriculum. But the changes do not stop there: multi-level groupings of federated schools and academy trusts have created increasing levels of complexity in terms of governance and democratic accountability: there are now 5391 academies, 2028 are secondary, with 46 Multi academy trusts comprising more than 10 schools.
England and Democratic governance of education
England has traditionally had a structured democratic system of accountability comprising LEAs, functioning as support and scrutiny, the schools inspectorate –Ofsted- a quasi-independent agency which monitors school standards-and a democratic system of school boards. This was a system once referred to by Steward Ranson as ‘the greatest experiment’ in democracy (Ranson et al. 2005). School boards up until fairly recently, comprised a mix of elected parents, teachers, head teachers, co-opted members and elected LEA representatives, all tasked with setting school strategy and monitoring policy and performance of the school. But the vast tract of education legislation combined with economic cuts – politically justified under the specious auspices of ‘austerity’ – has cut a swathe through this system. It is now characterised by non-linear structures , interaction between system components and professionalization of the governance and accountability structures (Higham and Hopkins 2007).
As the report notes, there are many forms of accountability in education, both vertical (regulatory, performance accountability) and horizontal (professional standards for teachers etc). One of the most powerful of these is termed ‘multiple school accountability which involves students, parents, communities and other stakeholders in decision making and strategies’ (Hooge et al 2012). It is this facet of accountability that is presently being placed at risk.
‘The Knowledge’: board skills and knowledge in an increasingly professionalised environment
Recent research into school governance reveals that boards are now increasingly adopting more skills based models of governance in order to cope with increased responsibilities resulting from school autonomy as well as more complex forms of governance in groups of schools –federations or multi-academy trusts This approach is advocated in no uncertain terms within the 2016 White Paper [section 3.29-.3.30]
But adopting these models, as research from public boards has shown, is very often at the expense of the democratically representative nature of board and a marginalisation of its local context (Lawn et al. 2014). Research also shows the challenge that this form of governance has posed to equality of representation in terms of gender, disability and ethnic origin: Issues that have and continue to exercise researchers and organisations alike.
An equally concerning element of The White same is in its declaration that it, ‘Will expect all governing boards to focus on seeking people with the right skills for governance, and so [we] will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards’[3.30]. Given the fact that some 44% of school governors began their tenure as parent governors, this raises some difficult areas in terms of not only who is recruited to this important role, but how they are recruited and trained particularly in areas of high deprivation where recruitment of staff, school leaders and governors is difficult anyway (Francis 2011). Since then the government have done a u turn on this aspect, however, the heavy focus on skills rather than democratic represention is still an issue, particularly in the case of multi academy trusts , whose often centralised board arrangements may be geographically and emotionally distant from the communities in which their schools are situated.
Conceptualising Democratic participation of parents and stakeholders
Democracy in education is as tricky a term to conceptualise in this field as in any other: riddled with norms and discourses, hegemonies and paradoxes, the term has become so integrated into the lexis of political actors that it no longer speaks to a single understanding [if it ever did].Rather it has become something that is ‘performed’ or done in education, (Butler, 1997), along with other elements – such as the act of teaching itself- in order to achieve government prescribed [largely economic] ends.
The issue of democratic representation (or lack of it) was very well illustrated in the recent case of the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy (IPACA), which has joined a trust in spite of a petition signed by 700 parents, former vice chair of the board of governors stated, ‘he did not believe London-based Aldridge Education had “the best interest of the school at heart”.
“Bringing in the multi-academy trust will mean that local governors will go, so local control, local understanding of the problems and the issues will disappear.”
He said a London-based board would be appointed to make decisions about the running of the school.
Education should belong to all of us – it is one of the primary functions of an advanced society and one of the primary foundations of citizenship. This was the premise on which the move to broaden-out school boards to include parents, students and representatives of communities, in the spirit of voluntarism and coordinated action [and activism], was based. It was designed to aid parity of provision in a system that has long suffered from a lack of it (Perry and Francis 2010).
Research has shown that individuals who sign up as members of school boards do so primarily through altruistic motives- to give something back to their communities: this is a key element in their democratic identities. Of course research also shows – not just in the field of education, but across the public and not for profit sectors – that once they join boards they engage in very different sorts of democratic activity (see for example: Cornforth 2001). They find their roles and identities subject to all the same issues that occur around ‘public interest’, namely that it is likely to be indeterminate, internally inconsistent or internally conflict-ridden (King and Stoker 1996,p.103). But that beginning – that sense of democratic participation based on the belief that in participating they will be contributing to their schools and communities – is absolutely fundamental in recruiting authentic individuals, capable of formulating a vision and withstanding the not inconsiderable pressures endemic within their role and function.
This is not of course to say that individuals with professional skills will not be possessed of this motivation; but in placing skills as not only the heart but equally as the soul of the recruitment process we risk losing a valuable element. In speaking of knowledge as a set of professional capabilities we also run the risk of losing the often unspoken elements of governance: The kind of unquantifiable tacit knowledge that is so often the cornerstone of democratic practices: the ability to speak for those in communities that lack the language to engage in democratic deliberation. This implicitly excludes those members of the board who speak with passion – their knowledge tacit rather than quantifiable – and who are, for their ostensible lack of a professional or business background, therefore marginalised because their information and contributions not trusted. This, in turn, creates a reluctance to contribute, a lack of trust as to how their contributions will be received and a fear that contributions may be dismissed as ‘community folklore’ lacking in substance.
Democratic Education as a cultural concept
The recent Ruritanian innovation of government is to allow the opening of new grammar schools, in spite of overwhelming research findings – not just within education but within some of the most extensive cohort studies in the world – that they are socially divisive and widen the achievement gap between rich and poor and create fissures which deeply divide society. The policy is emblematic of its seeming indifference to education as a form of active democracy and citizenship. What is glaringly obvious to those in education and, indeed, in many developing countries seems to be that such values are the last priority of the present British Government whose policy remains ossified within the business of creating structures for education – yet apparently overwhelmingly incapable of focusing on the democratic purpose and governance of a good education: to create a society in which the power to participate belongs to all not just the chosen few.
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Jacqueline Baxter is Lecturer in Public Policy and Management in the Faculty of Business and Law at the Open University
Image: Skeeze. CC0 Public Domain