Review by Hywel Jones

18 Mar 2018, 5:00

Rebuilding Our Schools from the Bottom Up, by Fiona Carnie

Increasing the participation of teachers, children and parents in the development of schools is usually at the forefront of school leaders’ minds, though each school approaches these issues in different ways.

Fiona Carnie situates this issue in the context of improving democratic participation in society, and draws upon an extensive range of case studies and research over the past decade. What became apparent to me a few pages in is the importance she places on the multiple layers of processes that help foster interaction between children, parents, teachers and schools.

There is an implicit thread throughout the book that the embedding and accretion of multiple interactions will be beneficial to society and give parents in particular more involvement in their child’s education.

Its core strength is the way it covers how schools interact with parents. The full gamut from standardised surveys, parents’ evenings, curriculum meetings and parent forums are covered in detail. I nodded along in agreement when she said that schools’ interactions with parents need long-term planning, and the importance of holding school leaders to account. Indeed, it caused me to reflect on how I had implemented some of her ideas, and the improved relationships with the parent body that happened as a result.

The case studies are broad, and some are simply worrying

Yet at the same time, I was yearning for her to critique the ideas more, to delve more ferociously into how these processes need careful thinking through.

The case studies provided by contributing schools were so overwhelmingly positive in their descriptions of implementing parent forums or parent surveys, that they lacked critique and focus on the operational management.

When it comes to giving children more of a voice in their education, there are some useful insights on what they want. The case studies are broad, and some are simply worrying.

I had no qualms whatsoever about an independent school that created “headmaster’s question time” for students; it was clear they were carefully prepared to use this forum for its proper purpose and that they had more insight into the development of their school and their education as a result.

However, when it came to a primary school training its pupils to be Ofsted inspectors, I was perplexed. Is this really what we want pupils to focus on at primary level: to train them to evaluate and measure the effectiveness of their school? This is the key failing of the book; there is little critique or careful selection of the case studies it uses.

In the wrong hands a process to empower pupils could be corrosive to a school. In this case, there’s no caution, no critique, no reflection on the potential dangers of methods on offer.

As Carnie mainly focuses on the multiple layers of participatory processes, there was little if any coverage of what pupils should learn in order for them to adequately prepare to take part in pupil councils, to ask questions of school leaders, or to complete a survey in a fair and accurate manner.

The overriding assumption throughout the book is that more participatory processes will cause pupils, parents and teachers have more and better opinions about the school – simply that more is better. I question this assumption.

Her explicit aim is to use the interactions between parents, children, teachers and schools to create a more direct form of democracy.

Surely, pupils need to have acquired knowledge of their democratic heritage, the workings of the democratic process and the differences between direct involvement and representation? This is reflected in the lack of critical reflection on what processes of participation might work better than others, or the importance of how such processes are implemented.

At the same time, the case studies from both the UK and abroad are enlightening, and will help you get a greater grip on the range of participatory practices that take place in education.

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