The relentless emphasis on the market and league tables, together with the uncoupling of schools, colleges and universities from local authority control over the last 20 years has created a fragmentation of local education services. That’s why we at Compass, in partnership with the National Union of Teachers, have been very busy over the last year conducting interviews, having seminars with students and experts as well as holding national and local events to get to the bottom of the question: How do we build a more equal and democratic model of education?
Currently, we’re seeing a climate of everyone for themselves and a democratic deficit with a weakening of oversight and accountability.
Yet, we believe that we’ve got to go deeper than returning control of education to local authorities. What’s really needed is greater involvement at every level by students, education practitioners and the community as a whole in the development of integrated, local, cradle-to-grave educational provision. In the construction and teaching of the curriculum as in the management of institutions, we strongly support co-production and the cooperative ethos.
A good example of this approach is our proposal to create Citizens’ Learning Networks where people can develop critical thinking skills together and apply them to the myriad problems that beset them. By their very nature, these new initiatives are likely to be autonomous and independently funded – a new form of mutual or cooperative organisation – but drawing on public contributions from local authorities or local enterprise partnerships in some areas. They will rest on the energy and imagination of the people who set them up and support them including visionary local authorities, charities and trade unions. They will draw on the self-organising strengths of social movements and the voluntary nature of organisations such as the WEA andU3A where every learner can be a tutor.
We propose several organising principles for a reformed system with local devolution as the starting point. That means a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities of national and local government and a distinction between service planning and oversight, on the one hand, and day-to-day institutional management on the other. All publicly funded education institutions and services should be required to collaborate in the implementation of locally agreed education plans. Education should look more like the health and social care system or fire, rescue and transport, with a leading role for local government. All publicly funded schools and colleges should be subject to the same regime of regulation and collaboration including academies and free schools.
We propose that Local Education Boards (LEBs) are created in every local authority area – and in some cases covering more than one area as in city-regions – to stimulate participation by local stakeholders to plan and oversee the provision of publicly funded education for all ages, from the cradle to the grave. The Boards, which will be elected as the same time as their host local authority(ies), will be responsible for creating a local plan for education. Chaired by a senior local politician or a leading public figure, the Boards will take over the oversight role currently taken by scrutiny committees. They are analogous to Safeguarding Boards in their oversight and coordination roles but differ in that they would be partly elected.
Local authorities and LEBs will operate in an environment of democratic collaboration and in partnership with students, parents, practitioners, employers and the community as a whole. Student councils, citizens’ forums, school federations, local representative forums, lifelong learning partnerships of providers: these are some of the ways that the community will be able to exercise an active voice. The boards will also ensure a right of redress for students and parents.
Much of what is proposed here chimes with the views of other commentators ranging from IPPR to CBI. The last year has seen a increasing convergence of view about key issues such as the need for an integrated and over-arching national baccalaureate linking academic and vocational skills and knowledge, and for politicians to focus on strategy rather than institutional micro-management. This growing common ground is very welcome in a field that has been excessively politicised for forty years, with successive secretaries of state determined to stamp their mark on the education system. But there is one area in which the Compass-NUT approach remains distinctive and that is our commitment to developing a network of collaborative relationships as the basis for local democratic planning, management and oversight. After all, if we value the fact that we live in a democracy we should aim to practise it at every level. The running of schools, colleges and universities would benefit from the involvement of students, parents and the people who work in them. Educationalists can learn a lot from the new collaborative models of service delivery pioneered by Participle, and we should take steps to ensure that we do.
Martin Yarnit led the Compass-NUT Inquiry’s work on local education governance. You can read the interim report on the Compass website. A complementary report on lifelong learning and further education will be published in the Autumn.