Local authorities and local democracy in the school systemPosted: November 20, 2012
Richard Hatcher, Professor of Education at Birmingham City University writes:
In his Policy Review Consultation paper Devolving Power in Education: School Freedom and Accountability, first published in March this year, Stephen Twigg (2012 wrote of ‘involving parents, communities, and local government in ensuring that schools play a positive role in local areas, delivering high standards and innovation.’ He described the role of the local authority as enabling ‘the ‘voice’ as it relates to democratic accountability in the school system: so local communities, parents and pupils have a say in how their local schools are run.’ He insisted that ‘Labour wants to see parents have a stronger role in their local family of schools. There is clearly a debate about how best to involve parents – via parental forums, for example.’
He took up the theme again in his Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture on 13 November, speaking of ‘local authorities as the voice of parents and local communities.’
Note that Twigg is not just talking about enhanced democracy at individual school level, he is talking about local families of schools, local areas and local communities, which I take to mean neighbourhoods containing one or more secondary schools and several primary schools. These will often be working together in collaborative clusters, networks and federations.
Twigg hasn’t translated these brief references to local democracy into specific policies. I want to make some suggestions as to how they could work in practice. I want to begin by making explicit the rationale for enhancing local democracy in the school system, drawing on the work of Stewart Ranson. There is a political governance argument and an educational one. The political governance argument is as follows:
‘Public goods and public decisions acquire legitimacy when they are based on collective, public agreement and are accountable to the public. Because public goods require public consent, it is rational to develop institutional arrangements and establish practices of participation and deliberation that enable learning about the expressed needs and wishes of families and communities. The judgement of the people is regarded as an essential and valued contribution to the process of deliberation.’1
The educational argument is this:
‘The cultural transformation of schooling lies in expanding the object of learning from the child in an ‘enclosed’ school classroom to the wider learning community of the family and neighbourhood. All the schools and centres in a neighbourhood cluster take on responsibilityfor care and learning of all the young people and families in the community. The challenge is to engage and involve those families in the value of learning that can enhance their capabilities and life chances. […]
Elaborating such a learning community can only be formed through cooperation with children, young people and families whose voices are crucial to shaping the purpose of expert knowledge. Forums will be required to allow a neighbourhood strategy and provision to be deliberated and planned.’2
What institutional arrangements might make this enhancement of local democracy in the school system possible? There are three.
First, there needs to be a structure at the level of the neighbourhood, the locality, where parents, teachers, support staff, other professionals, members of the local community and yes, students, can come together to discuss education policy and practice, both in their area and in the wider local authority. Let us call it a Neighbourhood Education Forum. Ideally it would be linked to the other structures of increasingly devolved local government – ward and constituency committees, neighbourhood forums etc.
Second, there needs to be a similar forum at the level of the local authority as a whole (perhaps including elected representatives of Neighbourhood Education Forums), because many neighbourhood issues will apply across the whole authority area and because the local authority represents the whole local polity. Let us call it an Authority-Wide Education Forum.
Thirdly, there needs to be a democratisation of the structures and procedures of the local authority itself, so that the voices of the forums can be heard and can contribute to policy discussions. Critics of Coalition government policy defend local government against its attacks, but the reality is that local government is not very open to popular, or professional, participation in policy processes. That has to change. For example, Education Scrutiny Committees could be opened up to representation and input from the forums.
Those three measures would create the conditions for genuine popular and professional participation in the policy processes in local school systems. The first task of the local authority is to engage with, listen to and be willing to take on board the views and demands emerging from the Neighbourhood and Authority-Wide Education Forums. But that is meaningless unless it results in effective influence on the policies and practices of local state-funded schools, including those of academies and free schools. That raises the question, not resolved in Twigg’s statements, of what the role and powers of a reinvigorated local authority should be.
This is a highly sensitive and contentious issue. Schools, especially after the experience of micro-management under Labour, and perhaps with negative experiences of the role of local authorities, are likely to be reluctant to accept greater local authority influence except over admissions policy and the provision of school places. I would suggest that there are four areas where local authorities need powers to intervene in their local schools, including academies and free schools, on behalf of the interests of the whole local community, on the basis of the legitimacy derived from both the representative democracy of the ballot-box and the participatory democracy of the forums.
The first is the collaborative development with teachers, parents and communities an inspiring vision for the local school system – its guiding values, principles, aims and purposes. Michael Fielding and Peter Moss, in their 2011 book Radical Education and the Common School: A democratic alternative, use the term of an ‘educational project’. They see the role of the local authority ‘as a leader and facilitator of the development of a local educational project, a shared and democratic exploration of the meaning and practice of education and the potential of the school.’
Second, local authorities need the power to translate the vision and aims into specific policies, promoting progressive pedagogic and curriculum innovation, for example by identifying, supporting and resourcing opportunities for collaborative knowledge and practice transfer and development between schools.
Third, they need the capacity (in terms of powers and resources) to support schools in addressing problems and to intervene effectively in schools which are under-performing, including initiating collaborative school partnerships for improvement with more successful schools.
Fourth, local authorities have to be able to restrict the exercise of school autonomy if it conflicts with wider community interests in social justice.
This is not an argument for a return to local authorities ‘running schools’ as they did before LMS, nor to a return of the top-down imposition that schools experienced under New Labour and are rightly sensitive about. Nor is it an argument for professional judgement to be at the mercy of public opinion, which is not inevitably in favour of progressive education policies. What it is is an argument that a more egalitarian, emancipatory, quality education for all can only be achieved through a genuine partnership between schools, local authority and community, and that requires new structures and processes of local participatory democracy where an ongoing educational dialogue can take place, coupled with the power of local authorities to ensure that the educational interests of the whole community are translated into school policies and practices..
1. Ranson, S. and Crouch, C. (2009) Towards a new governance of schools in the remaking of civil society. Reading: CfBT Education Trust, p50.
2. Ranson, S. (2012) Schools and civil society: corporate or community governance, Critical Studies in Education, 53:1, 29-45, p41.
Hatcher, R. (2011) The struggle for democracy in the local school system, Forum: for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education, 53(2) 213‑224.
Hatcher, R. (2012) Democracy and participation in the governance of local school systems. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 44(1) 21-42.