Issues of Power Authority and Control in Democratic Education

Regardless of where we live in the world – understanding issues of power, authority and control in democratic education systems is an important topic to engage with. That’s because access to education and training usually brings more choices – the freedom to choose or compete for a better paid job. A route out of poverty and disadvantage. If we educate ourselves we may be in a better position to survive and thrive in a global recession. In rapidly changing societies – we may need to change career up to six times in our lives.

In the education ‘game’ there are many stakeholders. Some would argue a better trained workforce enables an economy to compete more effectively in a global market – that’s partly the reason why ‘education’ is such a hot topic for governments and industry. Remember ex-Prime Minister of Britain Tony Blair’s famous phrase?: ‘Education, education, education’. Tony Blair came to power in 1997 and in the ten years which followed introduced sweeping changes in every aspect of the schools system. Not all of these changes are seen as positive by other ‘stakeholders’ – namely parents, teachers and the population at large – see this article in the Independent entitled “Failed! Political Interference is damaging children’s education”.

Before he was elected as President Barack Obama similarly declared: “I will make investments in education, training, and workforce development so that Americans can leverage our strengths – our ingenuity and entrepreneurialism – to create high wage jobs and prosper in a world economy”. (Washington Post, 2008).

There’s evidence to suggest that standards may in fact have fallen in recent years as teachers become experts in coaching children for tests and schools staff internalise the view that ‘performance is all’. As Dr. Penelope Leach put it in the excellent film ‘Too much too soon’ directed by Fergus Andersen for the British Open Early Years Education campaign:”If you teach children hard for a period and then almost instantly test them on what you’ve taught them they will appear to do extremely well – but the question of whether you have educated them in the sense of doing anything to contribute to their desire to learn – their intellectual capabilities – their predisposition to find things out – the evidence is that you haven’t”.

For many politicians it is the ‘control’ of education (and the ways in which it is communicated through the media) which is key. Politicians cannot afford to admit their policies are failing children. Not only would they lose face, they might also lose the next election. So what about our children?

Stressed out parents busy with the demands of the recession and the school run may not have the time, headspace or inclination to consider how education systems are in danger of becoming political battlefields. The joy of learning as an aspiration starts to disappear from view. But we cannot and should not sacrifice our children’s futures to political expediency. In any education system which calls itself democratic, parents as stakeholders still have a vital job to do. We need to actively engage with a school’s approach and their policies. We keep to take back control.