The summary of the education policy proposals policies of the five main political parties reveals the weighting each places on social justice and the importance of creating a democratic, equitable education system. But on closer investigation, are the proposals new or are we seeing same old, same old wheeled out for 2015 and will they really make a difference to the creation of a fairer system of education in England?
Time to Change?
Both The Greens and the Lib Dems declare their intention to make changes to the fundamental system of academies and trust schools , although the Lib Dem statement is far less specific about how they will do this – indicating that they will, ‘build on the academies model whilst correcting it’s defects.’
One of the major defects that concerns those of us in the field of parity of provision is, as The Greens rightly point out, the lack of ostensibly democratic governance of many academies and trusts. The Greens specifically state this by stating that they: ‘oppose city Academies and Trust Schools as we believe that schools should be governed in the interests of children and their parents, not through private individuals or businesses.’ This wish to reverse a trend that began with 1988 Education Reform Act-the act that created Local Management of Schools and encouraged the marketization of education in a far more direct way than previous acts had done- since then gaining traction through the Academies Act 2010 and the Education Act 2011, is going to be very hard to achieve. In addition fails to recognise the fact that in some cases these schools are successful – a fact perhaps reflected in the Lib Dems rather vaguer – yet more informed in government statement. UKIP on the other hand want to take the idea of marketization further by introducing a voucher system that they assert will ‘improve parental choice.’ But what is this so called parental choice and does it matter in the drive to seek out educational equity?
Parent Choice and Educational Equity – the same thing or are they?
The conflation of parental choice with educational equity appeared some time ago; in discourses not purely confined to education, nor solely the English system, but as part of a neo liberal way of thinking that effectively – as John Clarke put it – turned citizens into consumers. But the academies system has, if anything proved that viewing parents as consumers is not a guarantor of equitable provision – nor is it a resolution to closing our shameful track record of underachievement linked to levels of socio economic deprivation, as Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers puts it, “It is regrettable but a plain fact that child poverty is the biggest factor limiting children’s potential. Life outside of the classroom does impact on the ability to learn and is an issue that this and future governments must address.”
Unfortunately this emphasis on parental choice as guarantors of educational equity has created something of a paradox in terms of the way in which our schools are run and governed. Creation of financial and curricular autonomies have, in common with the rest of the public sector, gone hand in hand with increasingly punitive forms of regulation and accountability – John Major’s ‘Parents’ Friend’, ergo Ofsted – has come a long way in the last twenty years and its high stakes data driven form of regulation has been the cause of much consternation, not only on the part of the teaching profession, but by parents themselves. In the drive to offer parental choice and ensure that schools are top of the league tables, many parent governors – an innovation introduced by the Sheffield Project in the sixties – have been ousted or relegated to small representative bodies with no financial or decision making function – leaving those decisions to be made by so called ‘professional governors’ – governors from the business sector or professions who have sound backgrounds in for example: finance, law or HR. No one would argue that democratic accountability has ever been an easy nut to crack – the term is not an easy one to define, and after all, parent governors have never had a constituency. But the present system of heavy weight accountabilities combined with equally onerous levels of responsibility with its emphasis on professional governance, combined with the prospect of for profit schools – not mentioned in Conservative proposals but always a temptation for politicians of this political persuasion in spite of the current Secretary of State’s declaration that she does not support them – are not elements particularly conducive to encouraging local parents to become involved in school governance. Difficulties in recruiting them have traditionally exercised governing bodies in areas of high deprivation as a number of reports have indicated.
A Good School in Every Area?
Labour’s take on the matter is again fairly broad – good schools in every area and where parents are not satisfied, the power to bring in new leadership teams. But how parental satisfaction will be identified or not is entirely left to the imagination. Is this to be yet another function for the overloaded inspectorate? And if so – what type of parental dissatisfaction are Labour going to consider as justification for wiping out senior leadership teams? Is it to be the type of dissatisfaction that occurred during the Trojan Horse or Tower Hamlets Inspections – are we to parse parent views from those of governors? What is it to be based on? Fundamental ‘British Values’ or standards of teaching? How are we going to define either given recent dissatisfactions with the modus operandi of Ofsted along with the ongoing debate into the policing of British Values?
Sorting out the present systemless system as many have termed it, is not going to be an easy one for any future government to solve. But a good way forward would be to stop conflating parental choice with educational equity, to move away from this destructive and scattergun market model that has been so carelessly grafted onto our system of education and to remember that if you consider education as a fundamental human right, with all of its accompanying connotations – then that is surely a pretty good place to start?
Jacqueline Baxter is Lecturer in Social Policy at the Open University UK, her research interests lie in the areas of public sector governance and leadership, public sector evaluation and the impact of the media on education policy. She is currently writing a book titled: School Governance: policy, politics and the media post Trojan Horse – to be published by Policy Press in Jan 2016. Shortlisted for Outstanding Educational Commentary 2014 you can find her column at: https://theconversation.com/debate-over-national-values-is-a-threat-to-the-education-system-34635
Her blog at: wwwjacquelinebaxter.net.
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