Democratic optimism and authority in an increasingly depoliticised schools 'system' in England

Riddell, R (2018) Democratic optimism and authority in an increasingly depoliticised schools 'system' in England. In: British Educational Research Association Conference, 11 - 13 September 2018, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

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This paper reports initial outcomes from a short series of semi-structured interviews in 2017 with senior politicians from three parties elected to two contrasting English local authorities (LAs): an urban city authority and a largely rural shire county. These were complemented by continuing interviews with senior officers and head teachers, of both academies and maintained schools, some with positions in multi-academy trusts (MATs), and critical readings of LA strategic documents. Interviews focused on the nature of democratic authority in what is an increasingly privatised schools system in the sense that school governance and decision making have moved steadily away from the authority inherent in democratic representation of a local community towards a more technical (or technicist) conception that depends more on ‘people with the right skills, experience, qualities and capacity’ (DfE, 2017: 10). This process has been described as ‘depoliticisation’ (Ball, 2007), or even ‘destalization’ (Jessop, 2002), whereby there is little public disagreement or debate about schools’ role in achieving national objectives (for example, social mobility). And the new technologies underpinning these changes have in turn engendered new governmentalities and discursive formations focused on little except better ‘outcomes’ (Wilkins, 2016). The principal policy in pursuit of these aims in English schools has been the process of academisation, whereby schools have been steadily removed from the purview of LAs, however etiolated, to be funded directly by central government on the basis of a contract with the minister. More recently, schools have been more progressively organised into Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) – voluntarily or involuntarily – in processes overseen by Regional Schools Commissioners, central government officials also responsible directly to the minister (Riddell, 2016). Politicians interviewed varied in their support for academisation - not always in ways that might be expected to reflect party affiliation – but all felt that schools had an important contribution to make to the realisation of their strategic aims, from economic development to lifelong learning. In addition, they were interested in what happened to the children of their constituents and all felt local authorities needed to engage with schools, reporting varying success in doing so. All acknowledged the difficulties inherent in a system increasingly organised de facto to exclude them, especially with MATs with wider regional or national roles with the attendant more remote offices and boards. According to some politicians (and officers), responses from MATs varied but having an elected mayor in the city authority was seen as one significant mechanism. Nearly all were optimistic for the future. The paper sets these initial findings in the context of what one interviewee described as a ‘stalled process’ (of economic reform), with central government not willing or able to respond to their concerns about the management of the system, especially since the 2017 general election. The reported absence of any space in the national legislative programme for schools because of the preparations for BREXIT means that even the much-discussed National Funding Formula (for school budgets) will be implemented via LAs for maintained schools, retaining some discretion, not the original intention (DfE, 2016: 68). Nor is the process of academisation by any means complete; nor, it is argued, is it ever likely to be. At the time of the first interviews, Regional Schools Commissioners were in the early stages of setting up ‘Sub-Regional Schools Improvement Boards’ involving senior LA representatives, that will most likely remain ‘strategic partners’. In addition, according to several interviewees, a paper setting out the proposed statutory roles of LAs to be amended by subsequent legislation had been drafted before the 2017 election, but not published since. Whereas it could be argued that the newer system based on school collaboration increasingly organised through MATs, overseen by Regional Schools Commissioners, might be more consistent and reliable in attaining greater equity in educational outcomes, a focus so limited leaves major moral (as opposed to technical) questions concerning the nature of ‘state’ schooling in England unanswered in policy: what democratic oversight will local and national communities have of their children’s education; how can and will parents be deeply involved.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Keywords: democracy, public services, school governance, local authorities
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB1501 Primary Education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB1603 Secondary Education. High schools
Divisions: School of Education
Date Deposited: 04 Apr 2019 14:30
Last Modified: 15 Aug 2021 09:52
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