What’s happened to democracy in our education system?

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Democracy is a strange thing. The basic idea – that people have a right to decide is fine in principle, but what if the ‘people’ make the wrong choice? Who decides what’s right or wrong? I voted to remain in the EU referendum. 17 million people disagreed with me only 15 million agreed.

I still believe the choice was wrong, but try telling that to a gloating brexiter. “Who cares what you think”, I’ve been told, “we won so shut up and accept it”. I can argue that there were lies and deceit (actually on both sides) or that the question was too simplistic given the complexity of our relationship. I can even point to the drop in the value of the pound – which, by the way, increased the cost of my short summer break by hundreds of pounds. All I get back is “WHO CARES, WE WON!” Democracy has been reduced to a win/lose game.

You choose your side and hope it’s the winning side.

Education is not a game

The win/lose game has been going on in education for many years. But it’s never been as intense as in the last six years. A politician, by the name of Gove (remember him?), wanted to ‘win’ at all costs. He had enemies that he needed to defeat. His enemies were the enemies of his predecessors who challenged, but never fully won their battles with them. The teaching unions, the local authorities, the university education departments were all ‘bad guys’; ‘the Blob’; ‘enemies of promise’; ‘Trots’, that needed eradicating. Kill these groups and education would be back to where it should be – selective, ordered, pumping children full of facts and full of the traditional academic subjects and none of this trendy, irresponsible child-centred learning.

If it works for them, it’s bound to work for us

Gove’s bullying, autocratic narrative, right from the moment he took office, was breath-taking. He cherry picked successes from all over the world and simplistically and wrongly decided that a simple transplant of ideas would ‘fix’ a system he saw as broken beyond redemption. Only wholesale change would do.

Shanghai maths was lauded as the only reason students in the far east succeed where our students fail. Gove, then Morgan, now Gibb completely ignore the social and cultural context and the conditions under which teachers work in China. The narrative persists today – Shanghai maths is still being touted as ‘the answer’, and still the social context and the working conditions of the teachers is ignored.

Expert panels were hired for a curriculum review and summarily dismissed if they came up with the ‘wrong’ answer – that is, something Gove didn’t like. His tenure became so bad he was considered toxic and a threat to the success of the Conservative party in the 2015 election. He was summarily dismissed. Since then, his fall from grace has been quite spectacular.

The ‘Big Idea’ – every school better than the average

Gove’s ‘big idea’ was the academies programme. Here’s where democracy (not to mention knowledge of averages) really left the building, seemingly never to return. In ‘consultation’ after ‘consultation’, in vote after vote, plans to convert schools were rejected. The DfE response was, to be fair, consistent. ‘The only way to improve any school is to turn it into an academy’. Gove removed governing bodies that objected and put in place puppet governors who would do his bidding. The outcomes of any, seemingly all, consultations were systematically ignored. At the same time, parents were being told how important ‘parental choice was’ how parents should be able to choose where to send their offspring.

This paradox of simultaneously promising a democratic education system where parents have freedom of choice, whilst denying, in an overtly autocratic way, any dissent over the government ‘choice’ of who and how schools should be run did not seem to trouble the political elite at all.

It’s fine to ignore the will of the people, except…

The current government could ignore the outcome of the referendum; it was a close run thing, 52% for exiting the EU – 48% for staying. But, quite rightly the majority would say, that’s undemocratic. However, ignoring a parental vote where over 90% were against conversion to academy status, e.g. at Downhills Primary, was considered acceptable to the DFE.

There have been many controversial academy conversions, Downhills Primary school being an early, acrimonious and bitter fight against academisation which was lost. Others have been able to resist conversion, such as Hove Park school in Brighton. But the key thing in all these fights and in the programme of academisation which still rolls on unabated today is the loss of local accountability and the defeat of democracy.

Pedantic semantics

I know that a consultation and a referendum are two completely different things, but they are both tools of democracy – a way for the people to be heard, listened to and changes made in accordance with those views. But, as I was reminded once by a member of the DfE Press Office, ‘a consultation is not a negotiation. We are under no obligation to change our plans or abide by the results of a consultation. It’s merely something we have to do, consult’. Well the answer to the embarrassment of ignoring consultations is of course to change the law and remove the need to consult at all – which the DfE now plans.

Autocratic Failures

Recently we were told about the Lilac Sky Schools Trust which, having failed to improve schools under its control, has just ‘handed back’ to the DfE control of nine academies across Kent and Sussex. Here we also see another complete failure of democracy. These schools will be brokered to new Multi Academy Trusts – most likely at a considerable cost to the taxpayer – with no consideration of what parents or teachers would like to see happen.

The academies programme has systematically failed to live up to its expectations as the sole tool of school improvement. This fact has never been admitted or entertained by Gove or Morgan. Whether Justine Greening succumbs to the will of her party, and is still intent on destroying the State Education system via the academies programme (most likely with the goal of full privatisation) remains to be seen, but surely failure after failure must raise serious questions about the academies programme? Perhaps she could be honest with the electorate just once and admit that academisation is not a magic bullet, but a vast vat of snake oil sold by a charlatan salesman with no experience or qualifications.

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment
By Clark Stanley (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Where lives matter, democracy is essential

The future of our education system is not a win/lose game to be played by politicians settling old political scores against their perceived ‘enemies’. With matters such as the future education of our children at stake, an autocratic approach that ignores the key stakeholders cannot be seen, even remotely, to be democratic. It is quite simply a dictatorship. By all means where matters are relatively inconsequential be autocratic – a democratic, consultative approach for every decision would result in no decision ever being made. But these are not inconsequential decisions, they are major decisions that will alter the educational landscape for decades, perhaps permanently.

As Mr Spock says at the end of Star Trek III: The Wrath of Khan (1982), “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh…” Kirk finishes “…the needs of the few.” Spock continues, “Or the one.” Since 2010, the needs of the one – the Secretary of State for education – have vastly outweighed the needs of the many. It’s time democracy was restored to our education system and the needs of the many become the driving force for change.

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