Imagining future education. Policy directions and solutions

On 19 June 2013 I was fortunate enough to attend the BELMAS event ‘Who should own our schools’, organized by Professor Tim Simkins and chaired by Emeritus Professor Ron Glatter. The event was very well attended, well organized and offered up some fantastic speakers including Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive, RSA), Melissa Benn (Author and Journalist), Jon Coles (Group Chief Executive, United Learning), Emma Knights (Chief Executive, NGA), Brian Lightman (General Secretary, ASCL) and Mervyn Wilson (Chief Executive and Principal, the Co-operative College). In fact, the event was so enjoyable and insightful that I will share with you some of the different perspectives and ideas to emerge from it.

The focus of the event concerned the topic of school ownership – what does ‘ownership’ of schools mean, does ownership matter, and how does it relate to concepts of the ‘public’? An additional and equally important focus of the event concerned the role of collaboration across the school system and the creation of better forms of co-ownership (or co-governance) of services by education professionals and the people they supposedly serve.

Dividing pie chart

The concept of (co)ownership is an important one when we consider that state education exists at the intersection of apparently contrasting and competing discourses – hierarchy (paternalism, state intervention, coherence), individualism (consumerism, personal freedom, autonomy) and community (locality, group membership, shared values). (Matthew Taylor highlighted the community or ‘solidaristic’ perspective of 1970s British education and the individualism of 1980s education, for example. Today these discourses combine to produce very uneven and complex expressions). Education is also the product of complex public-private partnerships and networks. Consider academies, free schools, foundation and voluntary-aided schools, all of which are governed through public, private and third sector (voluntary) interests and a variety of accountabilities (contract, consumer, performance, market, professional, etc.). ‘Ownership’ therefore is a contested concept albeit a necessary one for contemporary debates on education.

It is necessary on the one hand for framing moral questions concerning what is the value of education. For example, should education be solely concerned with market prerogatives and competencies such as performance indicators and competitive behaviour. How much importance should be attached to schools producing entrepreneurial and ‘employable’ young people with the right industry-relevant skills to enter the ‘new economy’? Should this be considered a moral obligation for schools? Equally, what is the value of a school that works toward embedding and responding to community need and local interest. Both are moral and political questions and both powerfully shape debates about the value of education. Many people who work in or research education – professionals, practitioners, policy makers, sponsors, knowledge brokers, volunteers, journalists and academics – often find value in both these approaches. So the question of who should own our schools is partly to do with the values and beliefs of schools as well as the rights of citizens to participate in and shape local community and political processes, irrespective of their background.

The extent to which some education commentators and practitioners (in Britain at least) are prepared to engage with both these arguments – and even debate possible structures and systems for their joint expression – was reflected in the main question steering the BELMAS event: ‘How can effective democratic control be partnered with effective accountability for performance?’. The framing for this question is peculiarly ‘Third Way’ in its insistence on thinking through models, ideas and systems for the expression and articulation of social democratic and neoliberal ideals. Democratic control refers to vertical, community-led, grassroots accountability, the creation of joined-up services that work with and involve communities, parents and students in the vision and ethos of the school. Performance accountability on the other hand refers to audit, inspection, target setting, strategic planning, box ticking, performance indicators, league tables, competition and the monitoring of achievement and progression levels. There is a general consensus (in Britain at least) that both these perspectives matter to the improvement and equity of education. So what did the panel of speakers have to say on these issues?

Well, the general feeling among the speakers and audience was a very positive and surprisingly optimistic one. Many of the speakers expressed concern with some of the current arrangements that dominate school improvement debates in Britain (at least at the government level), including the myopic focus on performance accountability, selective admissions, the command and control model of governance among academy chains, the displacement of local community ownership of schools in favour of oligopoly, and so forth. However, there was a degree of optimism concerning the future of British education and possible solutions to the ‘democratic deficit’ shaping the current system. On several occasions I heard speakers repeat the phase ‘we are on the cusp of something new’, the kind of utopian, idealist thinking you rarely find articulated let alone murmured in the confined halls of academic institutions. Such optimism, especially in the current education climate, is few and far between. But the speakers seemed convinced that there is a growing consensus among professionals about what we ought to be doing and that a new vision of education might be possible in the foreseeable future, subject to a set of values everyone can agree on. To summarise here are some the main arguments put forward by the speakers:

  • The problem of securing system change in the current education setting. The system at the present time is too diverse and ambiguous, fragmented and internally differentiated. Seeking change through the concentration of power is pointless. (Ron Glatter)
  • More vertical, bottom-up accountability is needed together with less top-down, hierarchical accountability. BUT no mention of any reduction in performance accountability.
  • Echoing Stephen Twigg’s recent speech at the RSA, Matthew Taylor said ‘ownership has become a massive distraction’. School improvement cannot be achieved through transfer of ownership.
  • We need to rekindle (or reformulate, renew, as recommend by Professor Chris James) a sense of solidarity at the level of the school and encourage where possible partnerships across schools. Matthew Talyor highlighted three existing types of school-to-school partnerships: 1) Pyramid partnerships; 2) Family of Schools; and 3) Locality.
  • There is an emerging consensus towards midldle-tier arrangements, with some concerns over whether local education authorities (LEAs) are fit for purpose. Lots of agreement that LEA performance is variable across the country mainly due to the different number of schools within their remit. Also, some suggestion that LEAs need to better clarify their role in the future (intervention, commissioning, brokerage, for example) given their diminishing capacity to govern.
  • We need a system of education resembling Alberta, Ontario and Finland, one that rejects market model of closures and collapses and which is concerned with a good school for every child and ensuring the ‘common educational offer’. (Melissa Benn).
  • We must not romanticize the notion of democratic accountability, participative governance. LEAs and LEA governor representation on the governing body is sometimes perceived as interfering and unproductive. (Emma Knights, NGA)
  • The need for better transparent mechanisms through which schools can be held to account, for example by ensuring local people can influence the school. (Jon Coles, United Learning)
  • Stakeholder model and business model of governance not mutually exclusive but can be made mutually compatible. (Emma Knights, NGA)
  • ‘Mutualisation’: ensuring communities own their schools through safeguarding community assets and infrastructure. Building from collaboration and creating mutual solution to local need. (Mervyn Wilson, Co-op)

Categories: School ownership

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1 reply

  1. Was there any indication that what is on the horizon included space for the different agencies, partners, contributors or professionals etc. that still support schools from the raft of past policies and initiatives; or are we (a) focusing on actors further up the participatory ladder of ‘ownership’ or (b) more fixed within a school-to-school perspective (i.e. Hargreaves ‘Self-improving school system’)

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