School improvement is too important not to put parents in the driving seat

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09 October 2015 by ATL
Are parents really irrelevant to school improvement? You might think so, given the present behaviour of our political masters, but without them we’re not likely to get the education we want or that our children deserve.

For governments that take their stewardship responsibility seriously, understand that public services do not necessarily deliver service simply by virtue of being well-resourced, and are engaged with the voting public, there is no getting away from the need to track and evaluate the performance of those involved in service provision. The key questions for politicians and policymakers are just how demanding that process should be; the extent to which public service professionals should be trusted to get on with the job; and whether and to what extent government, or taxpayers, or consumers, should be the final arbiters of quality and consequences.

In respect of education services, at present we are witnessing a polarisation of views. On the Corbyn side, we have people advocating for a re-design of the local authority model along essentially stakeholder collaboration and trust-based lines (precisely the ‘support over challenge’ approach that got us stuck in the first place). On the government side, we have those who have become heavily invested in central government-facing accountability and solutions. But what about parents?

On Labour’s part there’s been little development on stakeholder representation on governing bodies as the best opportunity for the formal expression of parents’ views – a model which is fundamentally confused as to the nature, and level, of experience and qualification necessary for effective governance. At the same time, as the Conservatives have progressed to a second term, parents’ views have begun to look like more and more of an irrelevance.

There’s always been a difference of opinion within Conservative ranks as to the degree to which decision-making at school level needs to be influenced from the centre via the accountability framework, partly because of concerns about ‘producer capture’ and exploitation of the consumer disadvantage in respect of information about quality, but also because, from the taxpayer point of view, school improvement, in terms of its spill-over effects, has an importance beyond its relevance for parents. The perception is that it’s too important to trust to parent power.

The reality is that it’s too important not to – for two reasons. First, because unless parents are meaningfully empowered to the point where they, when all is said and done, arbitrate quality and consequences, teaching professionals will never be free to develop the rounded educational offering that schools aspire to, and their contribution will remain under-valued. There is broad consensus that present arrangements for school oversight and accountability have a number of dysfunctional side-effects, generally arising from a narrowing of professionals’ fields of vision to what is required to perform well on league tables (which in turn determine to a very large extent Ofsted judgements), to the detriment of teacher morale, relationships within colleagues, and belief in collective capacity to add value for pupils.

The second, related, reason why school improvement is too important not to put parents in the driving seat is that it’s unlikely that central government will ever lay off its tendency to place greater emphasis than is wise on a single clear indicator of educational performance, with the result that institutions of learning end up schooling all pupils the same, regardless of their differing aptitudes, experiences and emerging interests. This perennially underestimates the unintended consequences of single-measure focused accountability and thus results in a constant meddling with qualifications and efforts to make the measure work better. This is largely due to the pervasive influence of the equality agenda on education, and the difficulties of defining the nature of educational opportunity, which obscures the point at which government is able to say it has done what it set out to do, and may be judged. If we do not move toward a more transactional view of educational opportunity that consciously gives parents (and pupils) – those with most invested in the outcomes – the final say on whether politicians have discharged their stewardship responsibility, we will never escape this deleterious cycle.

So we need to encourage information provision that is independent of government, and multiply our measures of performance, without ranking their importance, but even if we do so, unless the purpose is to inform and thus liberate choice, the effect could just be to further undermine motivation and effectiveness.

If we are to empower parents as the final arbiters of quality and consequences, policy must support movement towards a properly demand-led system of supply. This means getting the national funding formula right to address regional disparities in per pupil funding; tying existing pupil-led funding to a physical voucher (weighted of course for disadvantage); removing default allocation by proximity in favour of open admissions and ballots in cases of over-subscription (supported by bussing, etc.); and making this redeemable at certain fee-charging schools (with some important qualifications) to promote competition.

It means further facilitation of new school supply, through devolving authorisation to multiple (non-government) authorising bodies, allowing diverse ownership (including private), and resisting calls to cap, or otherwise control, growth.

It also means government must permit a greater level of diversity in curriculum and qualifications than it is at present willing to allow. The evidence is not as conclusive – we’re not as clear – as the present government imagines, as to what is always and in every circumstance, in the best interests of all pupils. We need to invest in continuing efforts to get clear about what makes the difference for pupil outcomes, and for progress to different goals, and then be intelligent in how we apply the insights of the research. In a system geared up for parents to be the final arbiters of education quality, whose voice and decisions have real impact for the shape and success of provision, school leaders and practitioners would have to show and communicate how evidence has informed their offer and efforts to improve, and the progress pupils have made on relevant metrics, according to demand. Education systems that have done so have seen maturation effects as institutions learn and grow with their success.

Just as the answer to over-centrism is not a return to light touch local authority oversight, the answer to paternalistic anxiety about outcomes is not central government managerialism. In respect of school choice, the government should complete what is yet an unfinished project: half-hearted, half measures will achieve little and only serve to stultify progress towards truly globally competitive provision.

James Croft is Director of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education

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