Why Education Reformers Can’t Just Ignore Democracy

17th December 2012

The Coalition government ‘won’ the right to govern through the democratic tool of the ballot box and that means that even if I am disgruntled about some of Michael Gove’s policies he has the absolute right to make them happen. But for good reason democracy doesn’t simply end at the ballot box. If it did, there would be nothing to stop a person running around during an election, promising all kinds of things, and then once in power ignore the lot of it and merely pass policies to suit. Sure, there’s the looming threat of an election in 5 years, but a lot of damage can be wreaked meanwhile. To ensure power is not used in this problematic way MPs are held to account in several ways: select committees, regulators, debating laws in the House of Lords. Do these processes suck? Yes!  They take up time, they’re expensive, they slow down MP innovative genius. But they are as vitally important as voting if we are to truly live in an informed democracy,  and any attempts to dismantle these processes is equally deserving of a red warning-flare.

In recent weeks Gove has stomped heavily on the processes of an informed democracy that hold politicians accountable once in power. If a Secretary of State steadfastly refuses to answer questions in the Education Select Committee about their latest reform, this matters for accountability (see Q11-36) . If in that same meeting the Secretary of State says they will ignore the independent regulator’s serious concerns about a GCSE reform, it matters for accountability (see Q46). When the Department for Education has one of the worst response rates to requests for Freedom of Information, it matters for accountability. When the civil service – bound by a code of political impartiality – sends out tweets about teacher strike action which feel to teachers to be heavily politicised, it diminishes an impartially informed democracy. And when significant education policies are announced through the pages of a newspaper that citizens can only access by paying the corporation at the centre of 2012’s biggest media scandal, then –surely! – democracy and accountability aren’t just suffering, by now they are on the floor and weeping.

Gove can and should implement the policies he has long championed – free schools, the Ebacc, terminal exams – but through the correct processes: They are there for a reason. History is full of battles lost by megalomaniac Generals telling minions to run into situations they were not prepared for or did not agree with. If any education secretary really wants their policies to work it is far better to listen to the people who will carry out those orders and then act on their concerns rather than riding rough-shod over them.  Not following the processes of parliament, not taking the time to make a thorough case, only gives the impression of someone more concerned with getting their own way than getting genuine change, and that’s a shame.

Education reforms aren’t for creating a political career; they are for ensuring every child transitions as smoothly as possible from childhood into adulthood with the skills and resources needed for their future, and too much of the current ‘mess’ in education is due to teachers working in a landscape awash with badly thought-out-and-poorly-implemented-reforms now gone astray. Why did they go wrong? Most often because creators failed to follow correct steps and so avoided listening to people carrying out the plans.  Charles Payne – after working for three decades on education reforms – realised that if you really want to make a difference there are some rules you must follow. Two of the most important  are: (1) If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what the field workers tell meand (2)I will not equate disagreement with ‘resistance’.  He’s right, but seemingly his work is currently falling on deaf ears.

Gove doesn’t have to change his policies simply because people don’t like them, but as part of an informed democracy he does need to convince people he is right.  The processes developed in Parliament were often hard fought and all put there for a reason. If they’re not liked, there are ways to change them, but for the meantime the most important advice I would give to policymakers is this: Win the argument – through proper and considered debate – then you’ll get your laws and a decent implementation too. Simply win the fight to impose your will, and though you may push change onto people in a few years you will likely find that little has improved at all.