Remaking school governance

by Stewart Ranson

School governance in England since the 1988 Education Reform Act has been remade following neoliberal principles. It has moved from local council control to a competitive market among schools which are autonomously managed but subject to increasing standardisation and surveillance by central government in the interest of efficiently providing business with human capital.

There are however glimpses of a new beginning in a few local authorities, that might allow the expression of different values and purposes than the neo-liberal corporate orthodoxy.

Purpose: transforming the object of learning and governance

We need to re-imagine learners as prospective citizens, as co-operative makers of democratic communities in which they are to live and work. Human nature is not fixed but unfolding potential, as young people move within and between worlds. Community-oriented governance of schools involves creating an expanded learning community to engage children and parents. This sees the object of learning not as the child as a passive recipient of knowledge, within the classroom of a school detached from the community, but a more inclusive learning community embracing and engaging family and neighbourhood, with teachers, health and social workers collaborating to support all the learning needs of all children throughout their lives. Governance expands from inward-gazing guardianship of the standards agenda to outward-looking collaboration with parents and neighbourhoods.

The challenge: developing participation, voice and deliberation

(i) Debating a pedagogy of recognition and motivation: engaging and motivating the learner depends upon meaning, and this is constituted by the lifeworlds which shape our upbringing. The learner cannot be educated effectively independently of her community’s webs of significance. Learning is a journey between worlds, connecting the language of home and community with the language of the public space. Schools need to value learners’ familiar culture and language while developing the ability to flourish between cultures in a cosmopolitan public world.

(ii) Including parents as partners: Recent moves to appoint ‘professional’ governors miss the point. Efficient administration is a means, not an end. Education is about the purposes of living, the making of lives, so governance is a social, cultural and political activity, not only technical. Education is a journey between worlds, so governors have to mediate between worlds if young people are to become engaged in learning and commit themselves to developing their potential.

Consequently governing bodies need to be grown, by developing parents through participation. Parents from disadvantaged communities are more likely to develop the confidence to become members of the governing body when they are invited to become mentors for young people, use their local knowledge and cultural capital to support the school, help to organise festivals and artistic events. A school that creates forums for parents (in addition to those for children) at the level of the class, year group and school creates arenas that encourage and support the capabilities of voice, deliberation and collective judgement that are the defining characteristics required for capable participation as volunteer citizens in the governance of schools. In this way governance is not a separate assembly but grows out of the life of the school as an expanded learning community. By expanding parent involvement, schools develop knowledgeable participation and leadership.

(iii) A new formation of community comprehensive practice: The original concept of comprehensive school was an inclusive institution that takes in all abilities and embraces all classes and ethnicities. The child of the doctor and the miner would go to school side by side. To recover this educational and social ambition, comprehensive also needs to be understood in terms of neighbourhood – a ‘campus’ encompassing, for example, a college, a couple of secondary schools, primary schools and children’s centres. Only in this way can class and cultural diversity be brought together in common educational and social purpose.

This also involves teachers, health and social workers working together across their professional and organisational boundaries. A further change will involve the professions working much more closely with families and young people, being willing to listen to their voice and engage them in a conversation about their needs and concerns.

Structure: towards a system of community governance

The condition for relevance and motivation is to create a learning community that brings together local and cosmopolitan in its pedagogic practices. Just as excellent teachers have always sought to relate activities within their classroom to the interests of the child, the essential function of governance is to constitute structures of mutual recognition within and between the school and its communities. Decisions about the purpose and content of an education are likely to reflect differences of belief and become the subject of contestation and debate. Governance involves facilitating debate on education at the interconnected levels of cluster, locality and authority. This dialogue cannot be a technical task of calculation, but will need to be governed by the principles of public discussion – the giving and taking of reasons – that can resolve differences and secure public agreement.

At the cluster level, the challenge is to elaborate the learning community that engages young people, families and communities in a dialogue with professionals on the purposes, places and arrangements of learning. Forums will be required to allow a neighbourhood strategy and provision to be deliberated and planned.

Wider than the cluster referred to above, we need coordination at the level of ‘the locality’ (perhaps a quarter of the authority, around 100,000 people). This involves working with voluntary services and agencies offering services to schools and centres, and enabling young people not only to access specialized courses but also learn about different social and cultural traditions so that they learn to become capable members of a cosmopolitan civic society. This suggests a Partnership Board to include the variety of public, private and voluntary interests, and will focus on preparing the strategic plan for the locality.

Beyond this, the central function of a local authority is to govern the local political deliberation about the purposes and content of education, through processes that ensure public reason so that the shape of local education as a whole is agreed and is believed to be fair and just. This involves building coalitions that create the climate for, and thus legitimate, change. The local council as the democratic centre of local services needs to be restored to its principal role in leading the public sphere of civil society.


Stewart Ranson is Professor Emeritus , The University of Warwick. This briefing paper draws on his research with Colin Crouch (2009) ‘Towards a new governance of schools in the remaking of civil society’ (Reading: CfBT). See also

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