A democratic education system for social justice and equality: the case of a coastal a school

9 min read

One thing I have noticed in my relatively short time working here in Cambridge is that it is a strongly democratic university. Or at least it aspires to be. There is broad discussion over issues, where, especially if they are contentious, members of the university are asked to vote to reach a decision. Last year there was much debate over the funding of a chair to commemorate the life and work of Stephen Hawking. Potentially 3000 academics and academically-related staff could vote as Members of the Roll of the Regent House. Another feature is the academic freedoms that individuals working in the University enjoy, with which I feel a sense of duty and responsibility. I am proud of the values the institution preserves and sustains and, of course, very proud of the university of which I am part. All of this, I feel, brings out the best in me as a professional.

I argue that for schools to improve, they need to move away from hierarchical management structures, to democratic and distributed leadership models, much like the University of Cambridge. Schools need to empower teachers to have control over their professional work and ensure that they  have involvement in setting the direction of the school’s mission. This is an alternative model of cooperative school-led self-improvement as opposed to the in-vogue  top-down neoliberal school-led system in current policy.

Now you may very well point out that I work in an elite institution and as such it is in a unique position. I wouldn’t disagree, it is elite and there is much that can be said about the extent to which it is socially just. That debate, however important, is for another day. What I want to consider is how to get the best out of education professionals working in schools. My working model for this are the democratic principles underpinning the culture of the University of Cambridge. I return to this later, but let me a describe a case, a coastal school.

It was not so long ago that I was working in very different kinds of institutions, state-funded secondary schools in North East Lincolnshire. The first school I worked in, was, as a consequence of an inspection by OFSTED, identified as failing and placed in special measures [1]. I recognised, along with a number of other colleagues, that there were many things in the school requiring improvement.

However, the school was (and still is) located in a community with a high proportion of disadvantaged white British working class families. There was also a shortage of teachers; few, I imagine, consider moving to a coastal area in economic decline to work in a challenging school. Until the 1950s, the principle town in North East Lincolnshire, Grimsby, harboured the world’s biggest fishing fleet of 600 trawlers. Conditions in the town are different since the decline of the fishing industry, currently a quarter of young people are unemployed, that is almost twice the national average [2].

Through several generations the availability of secondary education has not mitigated the lack of opportunity and not led to social and economic improvement. It is unsurprising that there is a predominant culture of educational disaffection amongst the considerable group that can be described as disadvantaged. It is ironic that there exists free high-quality education, yet many in the community have little belief that it is going to benefit them. What is more, if you grow up in a family where your parents, grandparents and possibly even great grandparents have not been successful at school then it is hardly going to impact positively on your own perspective and educational self-efficacy. Not only do you experience, day-to-day, models that are negative, there may be few opportunities to develop some of the prerequisite skills to access a curriculum that is based on, principally, the curriculum philosophy of a sixteenth-century grammar school.

This is not the soft bigotry of underachievement, as it been characterised by current government ministers, it is the reality of underachievement. Moreover, it cannot be solved by implementing a more challenging curriculum, setting ever higher targets, increasing the amount of testing or parachuting in expert teachers. The solution to this problem is for highly qualified teachers who have a long-term commitment to the community to find solutions to the educational challenges in their locality and turn them into a practical and cost-effective educational project.

What is needed is a community-based cooperatively organised school, fully staffed by educational professionals with considerable professional training. Teachers require confidence, courage, knowledge and intellect to develop a school and curriculum that fully meets the needs of the community. They require similar levels of disciplinary knowledge to medical practitioners. Where doctors have anatomy, physiology and a range of medically-related scientific knowledge; teachers need knowledge of education, psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy, for example. These provide the knowledge base that combined with practical and practice-based implementations would start to bring about sustainable change.

This all contrasts with the craft-level curriculum-delivery model that is being surreptitiously introduced by the present government as part of its school-led agenda.

Over the last 25 years, and at least since the introduction of Local Management of Schools as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act, schools have been increasingly modelled as market entities. New Labour’s deliverology [3] introduced accountability and attempted to distil educational outcomes into reductive targets to ensure central policies were delivered. This represented a commodification of learning. In 2010 the newly elected Conservative Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, retained much of New Labour’s accountability but removed the agencies that supported the delivery of policy, like for example, the National Strategies. This means schools are responsible for both outcomes and the processes. Effectively academies sub-contract to the Department for Education for the delivery of education. It is looking less like a public project.

So  these are the factors that have led to hierarchical and managerial structures in schools and academy chains, be-suited corporatism is symptomatic of the increasing privatisation of state education. This in turn has led to deprofessionalisation since educational purpose is largely determined by accountability demands and the definition of improvement processes by school leadership teams. Teachers’ work is increasingly moderated by managers’ interpretations of accountability frameworks and certain kinds of performances become more valued over others [4]. Compliance with leadership-sanctioned institutional cultures is valued over and above the kinds of teacher behaviours that have educational value and the pressure to ensure students perform well in high-stakes examinations is considerable.

The emergence of this kind of management structure, approach and culture in schools runs counter to effective improvement. It may result in short-term gains: improvement in examination results and better OFSTED inspection judgements, but in the long term it does not have an impact on the education of the communities like the one I described earlier. For long-term improvements teachers and schools need to be holistic and responsive.

This brings me back to where I began. The kind of culture we need in schools must permit teachers to be responsive to the context in which they work. This requires a democratic, distributed-leadership approach that is oriented toward the professional, like we have in Cambridge. School management structures need to be flattened, so that those holding senior leadership positions are more responsive to the processes within the school and are able to support the interpretation, analysis and decision making of teachers. There would be no need for a non-teaching executive principal with a six-figure salary. Senior leadership, would be simply that, experienced teachers guiding, supporting and helping analysis and interpretation: a group of senior professionals with representation and participation from the junior and support staff. Decision making would be collaborative, consultative and collegiate. Bigger issues might involve a vote amongst all stakeholders.

And with this level of professional responsibility and fulfilment, there would be no recruitment and retention crisis.


[1] The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) lowest category following inspection is special measures. Schools placed in special measures are subject to regular further inspection.

[2] Bagehot. (2015, April 15). The view from Grimsby: A coastal clue as to why the economic recovery isn’t producing votes for the Tories. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21649463-coastal-clue-why-economic-recovery-isnt-producing-votes-tories-view

[3] see Bangs, J., Macbeath, J., & Galton, M. (2010). Reinventing schools, reforming teaching: from political visions to classroom reality. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis.

[4] Au, W. (2007). High-stakes testing and curricular control: A qualitative metasynthesis. Educational Researcher, 36(5), 258-267.

Update 14 December 2016

Useful podcast from the New Economic Foundation on Coastel Communities https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/weekly-economics-podcast/id970353148?mt=2


  1. The soft bigotry line is not down to response but due to assumption. It’s one thing to start from a earlier starting point because the child/group/class needs it, it’s another to assume they will and build systems on that basis. The former is a sign of good teaching, the latter is built in prejudice and it is this that has adversely affected children in inner-city schools. We don’t know, we need to find out for each cohort.

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