Out of the Dragon’s Den: Self-organising change for a broader vision

Kids at schoolby Philip Woods, Professor of Educational Policy, Democracy and Leadership at the University of Hertfordshire, UK and author of Transforming education policy

It is a familiar observation about education (and other public services) in the UK and internationally, that there has been a move away from a provider role towards a steering role for central authorities – from government to governance – and that this current of change tends to promote economistic goals and managerialist values and procedures.  Less familiar is the argument that as this approach to governance evolves, spaces for progressive change and broader visions of education grow.

The dominant (if not unchallenged) tendency of educational reforms aiding and accompanying the growth of governance over that last three decades or so, in countries such as England, US, Australia and New Zealand, has been to advance instrumentalising trends. That is, they have pressed education in the direction of individualism, markets, promotion of an ‘enterprising self’ and the relentless measurement of people against targets and performance criteria, and they have progressively blurred the boundary between the private and public sectors.

The scale of change is particularly marked in England. The landscape of the English school system has utterly changed over this period of reform. Today, for example,  thousands of schools have or are becoming academies (supposedly more independent) or trust schools (supported by charitable trusts), and over 70 free schools (new state funded schools set up by parents and others) have been opened since 2010.  There is a complex variety of school sponsors and partners connected to these new types of schools, all exerting an influence on state schooling and how public resources are used for the education of students. They include businesses, charities, faith groups, private schools, parent groups, and teachers. The thinking behind this policy is that opening up the state system to new ‘players’ in education will bring in the dynamism and enterprise of the private sector – in other words, it will harness the qualities associated with successful entrepreneurs. More autonomy is promised so that better, innovative ways of running schools and teaching can be introduced.

The problem with this is three-fold. Firstly, autonomy and enterprise are framed in a particular way. The school system is structured within a set of priorities in which the job of education is to forge people in the image required by the economic system (as understood by education policy-makers). In other words, autonomy and enterprise are exercised within an educational policy culture that has a particular view on what it means to be educated. The competitive spirit is privileged: players in the school system are encouraged to concentrate on the interests of their own school or group of schools because that is what they are judged on, rather than the greater good. Secondly, power and opportunity to sponsor and partner schools are not spread evenly. Certain groups – such as some businesses, faith groups, private schools and the well connected – are more able than others to use their financial and cultural muscle to take opportunities to control or set up schools. On top of this, new forms of hierarchy are being set up, which include chains of academies in which the schools and their headteachers are accountable to the heads of the chain. Thirdly, the linear model of controlling education through testing, targeting and inspections – the managerialist approach that has accompanied reforms – is increasingly being found to be limited. The linear model has fundamental difficulties in coping with cultural diversity, in tackling inequality and in effecting sustainable change for the better. In short, its problem is that we are people not machines.

The emerging system, however, is not monolithic. It frames what people do but it does not completely constrain them. The people within the system continually have to look for ways to interpret and shape policies. This is where it is helpful to see the system not simply as linear and hierarchical, but as complex and self-organising. The complex and diverse system of interconnecting organisations, groups, networks and individuals that is developing means that the direction and nature of what goes on within the system is as much about the numerous decisions and interactions that occur daily at all levels.

In this context, creative capabilities and resources can be used to bring about important and challenging changes in the direction and nature of the system. Countering instrumentalising trends are what I term drivers to democracy. These are incentives to bring about change which include the organisational value of more democratic and collaborative styles of working and the intrinsic urge to participate and be heard and to create a life that has deeper meaning. In the spaces and opportunities created by the complex, evolving school system, progressive processes of change are being created which in various ways are about encouraging collaborative learning, a more holistic view of education and schools working co-operatively across and within communities for a greater public good. Examples are at all levels. There are teachers working to make student voice truly participative and to make their classrooms more democratic and engaging environments. A key example is the reshaping of the meaning of entrepreneurialism: this need not be accepted just as the profit-driven, individualistic construction of the self, but can be redefined as a collaborative and ethical endeavour guided by higher values – which numerous schools and teachers are doing. Other examples are sponsors and partners – such as the Co-operative Group, the Steiner movement and the RSA – which are applying a wider vision to create academies and other schools, and networks of schools, that bring to life a deeper understanding of education.

The point is not to wait for progressive change to be mandated from central government; the point is to self-organise change for a broader vision. And to do this by renewing public values and ideals of holistic education and reconfiguring current trends like the promotion of enterprise, in order to create a learning environment that serves students not as instruments but as young people.

Transforming education policy is on offer for the month of October for just £15. Please visit our website to order your copy.

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