Local authorities and local democracy in the school system

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.

See also:

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.


2 Comments on “Local authorities and local democracy in the school system”

  1. David Pavett says:

    It is true that at the Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture Stephen Twigg spoke‘local authorities as the voice of parents and local communities.’ The problem is that this is single reference is embedded in a general discourse in which the reference to local authorities are either negative or neutral. Thus, on the one hand, he repeatedly says that Labour has no wish to return to local authority control of schools (as if anyone was arguing for the days when LA’s would determine when and in what colour classrooms would be painted) and on the other he talks about an important role for local authorities in terms which would give Michael Gove no problems – Stephen Twigg himself has pointed out, a recent DfE document lists over 200 statutory educational duties for local government. So, it is not so easy to see just what meaning can be attached t the idea of local authorities as a voice of parents and local communities. If it is a bone then it is one with no flesh on it.

    Richard Hatcher says that ST 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.” It is certainly true that he (ST) has spoken very positively of Academy chains. The problem with this, however, is that these chains are not based on local areas. They have more power than was the case in the latter days of LEAs and they are less open to parental and local community influence.

    I agree that ST “hasn’t translated these brief references to local democracy into specific policies”. Not only that but some of the things he says are directly contrary to what most people campaigning for secondary school system for all are working for. Everyone agrees that admissions policy is a key issue. The problem is to avoid selection either direct or covert. Who should ensure fairness in this process. I think that most campaigners for a genuinely comprehensive system think that this is clearly a role for local authorities. Currently Academies act as their own admissions authority, albeit within the parameters set by the admissions code. On this ST says “There is a need for local scrutiny on admissions, and ensuring fair access to good schools. There is a strategic role a middle tier can play to ensure access for all pupils, particularly those from groups who may be more at risk of falling through the net …”.

    How should local scrutiny be exercised? Why is this notion left so vague? And would it not be both simpler and more satisfactory for local authorities to control admissions? Does allowing schools to be their own admissions authority not tempt fate? Is it not an open encouragement to covert selection? And finally, if the answer to these questions is that there could be an alternative “middle tier” such as an elected Schools Board then should we not be alerted to the problems of any such solution by the low turnout in the recent elections for local Police Commissioners?

    I agree entirely with Richard Hatcher when he says that “Public goods and public decisions acquire legitimacy when they are based on collective, public agreement and are accountable to the public.” I agree further when he says “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.” But the trouble is that the Academy Chains which are now becoming the dominant force in secondary education are not based on local jurisdictions and they have reduced the level of parental and local authority participation.

    Labour needs clear policies on these issues but if we look at the documents produced for the Party’s policy process (through the National Policy Forum) and those produced for the parallel (and so far more or less unconnected) Policy Review then it is striking that these issues are not discussed. Above all there is no attempt to set out he arguments and to evaluate the different points of view. What we get instead is the constant repetition of a single point of view and the various consultation processes have no apparent effect. The consultation for ST’s devolution document, for example ended on 20th September and he has already spoken of conclusions drawn from it. But what were the consultation responses and why have they not been made available for the rest of us to see? Is this how we should understand democratic consultation?

    I think that if Labour is to build an education system that is genuinely comprehensive and democratically responsive then it needs to start by making its own internal debate both open and democratic. I agree with virtually everything proposed by Richard Hatcher. What I don’t see is anywhere that this is reflected in or can be connected to the preparation of Labour’s educational policies in time for the next election. It could be that I am failing to understand the debates within the party and that things are moving forward on the sort of collegiate basis that most of us want to see realised for education generally. If so then I would appreciate if someone could point me to where this process is occurring and to indicate the point reached so far by that process. I want the Labour Party to go into the next election with a clear programme for undoing the damage done by this Government to the system of education and to have a clear raft of policies for making all our schools good schools so that the scramble based on distinguishing good schools from poor ones is brought to an end. I cannot see how that can be done without a much more substantial consideration of the role of local authorities than has so far appeared in Labour documents. Such a consideration would, of course, need to indicate how local authorities need to be made more transparent and more responsive.

  2. Richard Hatcher says:

    Thanks David for your comments.

    The aim of my piece is to make a case for the necessity of a democratised local authority and of local participatory democracy in the school system. This is a vital argument at a time when the whole idea of local democracy in the school system, and of local authorities themselves, is under lethal attack from the government (aided by influential National College academics like David Hargreaves who say that local authorities are no longer necessary in a ‘self-improving system’) and where no radical alternative vision is forthcoming from the Labour Party, including from Stephen Twigg. Critics of government policy, and of academies in particular, find themselves defending local authorities as they are, which leaves them vulnerable to the criticisms that they have been and are bureaucratic and often ineffective. We have to develop and popularise a credible alternative vision, and that means finding spaces where that debate can take place. One opportunity is offered by the statements by Twigg that I quote, not because we should have any confidence that Twigg will translate them into radical polices but because they open up a space for a left response.

    Such a response would of course include local authorities as the local admissions authority and the ‘rehabilitation’ – David Wolfe’s nice term – of academies into a reconstructed local authority system, which entails expropriating schools seized by the private chains. David Wolfe has shown that there are no insurmountable legal obstacles to doing this.

    Will Labour go into the next election with, as David Pavett says, ‘a clear programme for undoing the damage done by this Government to the system of education and […] a clear raft of policies for making all our schools good schools’? The answer is no it won’t, unless, and only if, there is a sufficiently powerful popular movement to put enough pressure on it to do so. The potential building blocks of such a movement exist already in campaigning organisations like CASE, the Anti-Academies Alliance and the SEA itself, in the trade union movement, especially the powerful school unions, among committed academics, in local campaigns by parents and teachers, and hopefully in some Labour Party branches. But what is urgently needed is to bring these scattered elements into a broad united national coalition or alliance for education, capable of producing a common agreed well-argued case in its leaflets and pamphlets and taking a roadshow round the country to build a movement that the Labour leadership can’t ignore. Can the SEA help take the lead in convening a meeting to set up such a coalition?