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«GOVERNMENT’S CONSTRUCTION OF THE RELATION BETWEEN PARENTS AND SCHOOLS IN THE UPBRINGING OF CHILDREN IN ENGLAND: 1963–2009 David Bridges Faculty of ...»

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39. That is, the (virtual) monopoly of (government-funded) local education authorities in the provision of schooling. See Anthony Flew, ‘‘Education Services: Independent Competition or Maintained Monopoly?’’ in Empowering Parents: How to Break the Schools Monopoly, ed. David G. Green (London: Institute of Economic Affairs: Health and Welfare Unit, 1991).

314 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 As David Miliband pointed out, however, commenting on the Education Reform Act (ERA) 1988, ‘‘choice is meaningless in the absence of accessible alternatives. To replicate the virtues of market competition, the ERA had to establish the basis for the differentiation of educational ‘products.’’’40 Thus, to meet the supply side of market conditions, the government promoted diversity of provision through

• legislation to enable the establishment of City Technology Colleges (CTCs);41

• legislation (and a heavy promotional campaign) designed to enable and encourage schools to opt out of LEA control — followed by increasing liberality in the opportunity given to these schools to determine their own policies on, for example, discipline and, later, selection of students;42

• an Assisted Places Scheme designed to enable a small number of children to take up places in independent schools;43

• the expansion of the CTC initiative to allow schools to offer other areas of specialization, for example, in languages, sport, and the arts and humanities;44 and

• legislation enabling parents or other bodies to set up their own schools — later ‘‘City Academies’’ were provided for by the 2002 Education Act — with government support as well as private sponsorship.

To satisfy the demand side of market conditions, the government reduced the constraints on parental choice of schooling. These existed mainly to ensure an economic and manageable allocation of student placements according to the local service’s capacity, so it has not been easy for government realistically to introduce great flexibility in this area while also maintaining its other commitment to take ‘‘spare places’’ out of the system and to reduce unnecessary expenditure. The trouble is that to meet elasticity of demand you need elasticity of supply, and an

40. David Miliband, Markets, Politics, and Education: Beyond the Education Reform Act (Education and Training) (London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 1991), 75. Some seventeen years after he made this statement as part of the Labour Party opposition to Thatcher, Miliband became Minister for Schools and an enthusiastic advocate of ‘‘School Academies’’ with diverse forms of private sponsorship.

41. Education Reform Act 1988.

42. Ibid. For more on this and the City Technology Colleges, see Geoffrey Walford, ‘‘From City Technology Colleges to Sponsored Grant Maintained Schools,’’ Oxford Review of Education 26, no. 2 (2000): 145–158.

43. The Assisted Places Scheme, which enabled children from poorer families to attend private schools, was originally introduced under the Conservatives in 1980 but had, subsequently, a somewhat checkered history. See John Fitz, Tony Edwards, and Geoff Whitty, ‘‘The Assisted Places Scheme: An Ambiguous Case of Privatisation,’’ British Journal of Educational Studies 37, no. 3 (1989): 222–234.

44. This initiative was extended under the Conservatives in 1995 and 1996 through funding grant mechanisms. Then, under Labour in 1998, schools were allowed to allocate a percentage of places to children with a particular talent or specialty area under the School Standards and Framework Act; http:// www.opsi.gov.uk/Acts/acts1998/ukpga 19980031 en 1.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation impoverished school system does not have much of the latter. Despite, therefore, the rhetoric of choice and parent power, a consultation paper on school admissions prepared in 1987 by the Department of Education and Science (DES) pledged only that parents ‘‘would have the right to express a preference to the school at which they would like their child to be educated.’’45 The 1988 Act went a step further and insisted that schools accept as many students as capacity allows, paving the way for potential expansion and contraction in response to market forces. The Parents’ Charter declared in bold type: ‘‘You have a right to a place in the school you want unless it is full to capacity with pupils who have a stronger claim.’’46 The 1996 Education Act reemphasized the significance of the demand side in the market equation by affirming, in a paragraph headed ‘‘Pupils to Be Educated in Accordance with Parents’ Wishes,’’ that In exercising or performing all their respective powers and duties under the Education Acts, the Secretary of State, local education authorities and the funding authorities shall have regard to the general principle that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents, so far as that is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure.47 But in order for customers to make sensible choices, they need information about the alternatives. A number of government measures were designed to provide such information, even if there has been some controversy about its validity, relevance, and fairness. The Parents Charter promised five ‘‘key documents’’ that would provide information for parents, though it is only really the third and fourth





of these that contribute directly to the market information:

• a report about a parent’s own child at least once a year;

• regular reports from independent inspectors;

• performance tables for all local schools;

• a prospectus or brochure about individual schools; and

• an annual report from your school governors.48 The application of this market model to education has of course been widely discussed and critiqued. Some criticism focuses on the inapplicability or incompleteness of the market model in current educational conditions; that is, it demands a fuller commitment to the establishment of a market.49 The more

45. Department of Education and Science, Admission of Pupils to Maintained Schools, Consultation Paper (London: Department of Education and Science, 1987), 2.

46. Department of Education and Science, The Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools (London: HMSO, 1991), 10.

47. Education Act 1996, par. 9; http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1996/ukpga 19960056 en 2# pt, 1-ch1pb3-l1g7.

48. Department of Education and Science, The Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools.

49. See, for example, James Tooley, Education without the State (London: IEA Education and Training Unit, 1996).

316 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 worrying criticisms, perhaps, are those that relate to what happens when the

market works ‘‘best’’:

It is not the imperfections of the market that make it dangerous, but rather its potential to do damage where it works most effectively.... ‘‘Success’’ according to the logic established in the ERA’s educational market is precisely what society requires that we avoid — namely an education system marked by (narrowly-based) excellence for an elite but sub-optimal provision for the majority of children.50 In this context, however, what most concerns me are the consequences of the market model for relations between parents and school. It seems to me to present a considerably impoverished view of what this relation could and should be. For example, if parents are ‘‘customers,’’ then this suggests that their responsibility is primarily to make an informed and sensible choice of the school that will provide the educational service. But what of their own educational responsibilities and roles? As customers we expect to employ someone else to get on and do the job for us; we do not expect the plumber to remind us of the part that we have to play in fixing the pipe — that is what we pay him or her to do! Less still do we expect to contribute from our own effort to the service provided by that plumbing firm to ourselves and other customers. The trouble is, as Miliband also pointed out, ‘‘under the ERA’s provisions, it becomes more important for parents to battle to get their child into the best school than for them to make possible and work for the improvement in the quality of their local school.’’51 We need perhaps to observe here the distinction between two kinds of advantage that education can bestow on children. One is a positional advantage that can only be achieved at someone else’s expense. Thus the school that prepares its students (or some of its students) more effectively for job applications or for university entrance may bestow positional benefit to its own students and may affect the distribution of such benefits, but if schools in general come to carry out this function equally well, there is no net benefit to the wider population of school students unless the employment opportunities or chances of entering higher education themselves increase.

But education also bestows other advantages that are nonpositional and infinitely extendable. It provides insight, understanding, and stimulus to interest, imagination, reflection, and creativity, all of which are viewed as intrinsically worthwhile. Furthermore, these are ingredients of an educated culture from which everyone benefits the more widely and deeply they are extended and shared.52 The problem is that as far as parents and schools are concerned there is a considerable tension between the rational courses of action dictated by allegiance to these two perspectives on education. As a custodian of my own children’s interests, I must naturally seek to advance their access to the positional advantages

50. Miliband, Markets, Politics, and Education, 13.

51. Ibid.

52. John McMurty, ‘‘Education and the Market Model,’’ Journal of Philosophy of Education 25, no. 2 (1991): 209–217.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation that education can bestow, even at the expense of other people’s children. It suits me to have unequally distributed educational provision and advantage provided that my children have the better end of the deal. At the same time, self-interest as well as altruism indicates that I and my children will benefit from a school, a community, and a wider society in which the nonpositional advantages of education are widely shared and celebrated — but this will, quite logically, become a secondary priority to parents who can see much more sharply the immediate benefits attached to securing positional educational advantage for their child.

The consequence of this dilemma is that the more a system of schooling offers the opportunity for parents to secure positional advantage for their children, the more they will (quite rationally) exercise their custodial responsibility to secure that advantage for their own children and the less they will concern themselves with ensuring that the system provides nonpositional benefits to all.

The richer, educative, and universally beneficial purposes of schooling will become subordinate to the narrower, self-interested function that can benefit some only at the expense of others.

The system of schooling that will most fall victim to these priorities will be one that offers a hierarchy of different schooling opportunities of just the kind that the market requires. The system of schooling best designed to secure the broader educational benefit for all will be a common and comprehensive system attached to a common curriculum, one in which the competition for positional advantage is postponed for as long as possible and one in which early jockeying for positional advantage by either students or parents is actively discouraged.

In such a context the rules can be constructed so that parents’ natural and proper desire to act in the interests of their own children becomes rationally directed to efforts that benefit the wider community as well. They are thus partners with the school and with other parents in a genuinely educational enterprise more than manipulators of the school system and in competition with other parents for the sake of the positional advantage of their own children.

Of course no one should be so na¨ve as to imagine that this second element ı of the parental educational enterprise will entirely disappear. But we do not need deliberately to construct market mechanisms in education perfectly designed to maximize the narrowly self-interested pursuit of positional advantage at the expense of the broader socially (including self-) interested pursuit of a widely educative and educated community.

When I first wrote in these terms about education in the marketplace, it was in the later years of the administrations of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, which (whatever one thinks about that time) certainly introduced a radical shift in British politics based on the neoliberal economic and political agenda.53 When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, there was an expectation of an equally radical shift, though

53. Bridges, ‘‘Parents: Customers or Partners?’’ 318 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 perhaps we were less clear than we might have been about the direction of this shift. In practice we received more of the same: ‘‘New Labour’’ began to look remarkably like the Thatcher–Major brand of Conservatism. There was no return to local democratic control over schools; no reaffirmation of the comprehensive ideal (the disparaging rhetoric of the ‘‘bog standard’’ comprehensive school replaced the principle of the ‘‘common’’ school); no thrust to build parental and community involvement and commitment. Instead, the mechanisms of the market were summoned up in the service of improved performativity measured in test scores.

But, as Miliband had anticipated, the market required more opportunities for choice between different kinds of schools — so the Labour government made it possible for new faith schools to be established (including for the first time Muslim schools with state sponsorship), and it initiated a program that has been seeking to accelerate the establishment of ‘‘City Academies’’ with private sponsorship (and a distinctive ethos) provided by individual and corporate-sector support.54 Parents were encouraged to force ‘‘poor’’ schools into closure by removing their children from them and sending them to ‘‘successful’’ schools elsewhere. In this way parental choice became the mechanism by which government sought to drive up school performance.

Here, as in the whole marketization program, the government’s construction of the relation between parents and schools has been not one of engagement, of drawing parents into any kind of direct relation with the education of their children, but rather one of the purchaser to provider.

Parents as Failures — And ‘‘Safeguarding’’ the Child For most parents, our children are everything to us: our hopes, our ambitions, our future.

Our children are cherished and loved. But sadly, some children are not so fortunate. Some children’s lives are different. Instead of the joy, warmth and security of normal family life, these children’s lives are filled with risk, fear and danger: and from what most would regard as the worst possible source — from the people closest to them.55 Nearly all the models of the relation between schools and parents (and government’s manipulation of that relation) that I have discussed so far have assumed at least a minimal level of commitment and responsibility on behalf of parents for the education of their children. Some (for example, the requirement for parents to be coeducators — or even governors) require a very high level of such commitment, and indeed one of the criticisms of the programs that invited heavy involvement of parents even in the classroom was that it favored parents who were willing and able to make such a commitment over those that could not or would not, and thus tended to reinforce existing differentials in the educational advantages that students enjoyed. But what if parents lacked that sense of responsibility or commitment?

54. Education Act 2002 c. 32, Learning and Skills, http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts.



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