The schools that are building democracy into their education

5 Jul 2018, 15:00

This week has been declared the UK’s first-ever ‘National democracy week’ in an effort to get people more interested in politics. Here Fiona Carnie celebrates the schools that already get pupils, parents and teachers involved in the way things are run.

One fundamental principle of democracy is that it allows people to participate in decisions that affect their lives. It follows that in a healthy democratic society, all those who are involved in the education system, namely teachers, parents and students, can have a say.

But as things stand, pupils have little chance to contribute to decisions about what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it, parents are not routinely involved in school decision-making, even on issues which affect them, and the majority of teachers have little say in what they teach, nor are they able to contribute to discussions about the direction of their school.

Here are some ways that schools around the UK are bucking that trend.

At Sweyne Park School in Essex, inspired by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, pupils are regularly involved in panels on subject reviews. Pupils and teachers meet to discuss classroom practices, and these sessions inform decisions about how the curriculum is organised. Pupils provide constructive feedback which assists staff in planning their lessons, and in turn they become more actively engaged in their learning.

At the Blue School in Somerset, over 300 students are involved in the school forum, which is divided into 28 teams, each dealing with a different aspect of school improvement. Students volunteer to join a team, ranging from Africa Link and Allotment to Fair Trade, Dyslexia Support, Science Team, Waste and Recycling, and Website. They actively experience the reality of running a project. A community link teacher supports each student team and there is dedicated time in the school week for teams to get on with their projects.

As for parents, Burlington Junior School in Kingston has parent representatives who are treated as genuine partners. They often spend time helping in classrooms, and through the parent forum are able to make proposals for improvements. Parents have been involved in positive changes to the reporting system and in reviewing homework policy to make it more meaningful for their children.

It is also important that teachers have a voice in their schools. In Scotland it is increasingly normal for teachers to contribute to their school’s self-evaluation process. Teachers are treated as professionals and encouraged to be reflective practitioners who can share and develop new ideas and approaches.

A major challenge is to bring these voices together so that teachers, students and parents work collaboratively and pull in the same direction. In theory, a school’s governing board should be the place where views are shared and considered in the round, but this does not happen as a matter of course.

Perhaps it is time for each school to establish a school community council to agree the vision and values for their school and to assess the extent to which it is achieving its aims and objectives. Such a body would provide a space for dialogue where different perspectives and experiences could be discussed.

Research in the fields of student participation, parental involvement and teacher voice indicates that higher levels of school autonomy and greater participation lead to more positive outcomes. It also shows how the involvement of these different groups is central not just to improving our education system but to creating a more inclusive, equitable and democratic society.

As part of the democracy week publicity, the government is saying that “every voice matters”. So let’s listen to those who are most involved in our schools on a day-to-day basis and ensure that educational decision-making – at national, local and school levels – reflects their realities. Schools will be more able to meet the needs of the communities they exist to serve, and by working together in our own communities we can challenge the democratic deficit. It can be done.

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