What is the Big Society way to improve education?

By Mary Brown 17 May 2011

When David Cameron relaunched the Big Society Agenda in a speech given in Milton Keynes on Monday he spoke about the government’s education policy and how it fits into the Big Society:

‘We’re not introducing free schools and expanding Academies because it’s a way of saving money from the schools budget. We’re doing it because it’s the best way to improve education. More choice for parents. More freedom for professionals to innovate. A greater ability for new providers to come forward. It is the Big Society way to improve education.’

How do parental choice, professional innovation and a greater variety of providers make education more ‘Big Society’? The Jubilee Centre’s Big Society in Context report placed the Big Society agenda within four key concepts of political theology: subsidiarity, solidarity, human dignity and the common good. ‘On this understanding,’ it noted, ‘the task of government is to create the conditions under which society might thrive through the direct [and most effective] action and responsibility of individuals, families and local organisations, rather than forcing change itself.’

Free schools and Academies 

Free schools and Academies are funded by central government, but are run more like independent schools, free to choose their own curriculum as long as it is ‘broad and balanced.’ Whilst Academies tend to be converted state schools, free schools are set up by groups outside the government: by parents, teachers, charities, trusts, religious groups, and voluntary organisations. Academies and free schools allow for local community control of education, something central and essential to the growth and continuation of the community.

The giving of tasks, such as education, to the local community, or groups within the local community is what the principle of subsidiarity is all about: delegating every task to the smallest and most local group that is able to effectively carry it out. Academies and free schools fit this principle. However, these were not the features highlighted by Cameron as examples of an educational Big Society. He spoke of choice, variety and innovation. Freedom to establish new schools, freedom from the curriculum and increased variety between schools are all provided for by the Academies and free schools, but there is no clear correlation between these things and the Big Society.

What has educational theory and the Bible said about these issues?

Parental involvement and authority is clearly central to all that the Bible says about education and child rearing. However, ‘involvement’ does not equate to ‘choice’. The idea that parents are free to choose the best way for their children to be educated, and to set up an alternative school when they are unhappy with local provision seems to promote individualism and undermine community. The community and the Big Society agenda would be better served if parents were encouraged to get involved in the school and help the staff to change and improve it so that it can meet local needs. This is clearly a possibility within the Academies and free schools system, but one that Cameron seemingly overlooked. If parents are encourage to pick and chose, children with parents who are less involved and less concerned will miss out, and the segregation feared by those who opposed the Academies Bill could well result. If, within a community-led school system, those parents with the time and inclination were free to help run the local school, because of its relative independence, then the principle of solidarity would also be met.

Professional freedom in innovation was central to the educational theory of John Dewey. He argued for ‘teacher-led’ education, where teachers were free from centralised bureaucracy, and were able to tailor their curriculum and teaching methods to the individual class. This obviously requires hard work on the part of the teachers, and is a pipe dream in a system of increasingly large class sizes. However, the Academies and free schools programme does provide the freedom for each school to tailor its curriculum to the local community, if not to the individual children. Here Cameron seems to have hit upon an element of Academies that can serve the community and the Big Society agenda.

Lastly he spoke of variety of providers. This is more of a market issue than an educational issue, and once again sounds like individualism, encouraging choice rather than cooperation. Cooperation within the community is essential if a true ‘Big Society’ is going to be built, and our individualistic attitudes are to be replaced with attitudes which seek to serve others. Human dignity and the common good require strong communities where skills, time, and resources are put to use for the benefit of others, not just ourselves. If the Academies and free schools agenda is going to work, parent groups, teacher groups and charities will start schools not just because they are unhappy with provision for their own children, but because they realise that communities begin in school, and a good school has a vast impact. Academies and free schools are the ‘Big Society way’ because they provide the freedom needed for the community to serve itself, working together to provide essential services. Not because they increase choice and variety.

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