Nottingham and Nottinghamshire – reinventing democratic public education

August 18, 2015 — 8 Comments

Society is being transformed. The welfare state that developed in the post-war years is under attack. Almost every element of  it is being ‘marketised’.  Services are sold off and contracted out. Private sector organisations (some for profit, others not) replace public provision. Competition and internal markets have become the taken for granted ‘common sense’.  We are all customers now . . .

These phenomena are all visible in education – where schools, colleges and universities are forced to behave like businesses, whilst people of all ages are encouraged to see education as little more than an investment to enhance labour market employability.

Education is reduced to inputs, outputs, efficiency and the return on investment. We are told that the market provides us with choice and that choice gives us power – but at the same time the big decisions about education are increasingly made by people far removed from the local communities where the people who use and need public services really are.  There is a gaping democratic deficit in how we decide the really big questions in education, and many of the small questions too.

In the City of Nottingham and County of Nottinghamshire all of these tendencies are evident.  Over the years the areas have had more than their fair share of the ‘big ideas’ in education – none of which have really addressed the fundamental problems faced in the City and the County. Meanwhile, the corridors of power, where the key decisions are made, often seem more remote, and less accessible, than ever.

However, it is important to remember that none of this is inevitable. Education can look different – and there are different ways of thinking about how we identify and address both the big and small questions in education.

On Saturday 14th November (10am-4pm – FREE) at the University of Nottingham we will be discussing all these issues in more detail.  Not only thinking about the type of education we want, but also the ways we can make sure that all have the opportunity to be ‘co-constructors’ of the education policies that shape local provision.

HilaryWainwrightThe keynote speaker is Hilary Wainwright.

Hilary is the author of ‘Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy‘ and ‘Public Service Reform: But Not As We Know it‘.  She has excellent first hand of experience of working with grassroots groups to democratise local services. This ‘Think Piece’ gives a great example of some of her thinking – Wainwright-TP-821

There will also be workshops of developing local partnerships and networks, using the media to support community based campaigns, developing democratic teacher professionalism and student voice (further details to follow).

The event is intentionally broad – aimed at students, parents, those who work in education and simply those interested in education.  It will cover all phases and interests – from early years, through schools, FE and HE to community and adult. It will include discussion of both the City and the County (hence Nottingham-Shire).

The starting point for the day’s discussion is that education is a public (collective) good and that education for democracy must itself be democratic.  Beyond that, there are no pre-determined outcomes, no preferred solutions and no blueprints.

Discussion will be about how we rediscover, reclaim and reinvent democratic public education in our communities – city and county.  The concern is both with the what and howwhat do we want, and how do we mobilise collectively to make it happen? There can be no ready answers because it will be for participants to decide for themselves both the destination and the route.

In order to help facilitate discussion there will be some external and whole session speakers (details to be announced).  However, most of the day will be devoted to small group discussion, with plenaries to share thinking and formulate collective responses.


Come along –  register here (places are limited)

Get involved in planning the day – drop me an email and become part of the conversation.


Email me to find out more or ask a question.

This event is part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. I am grateful to the ESRC for financial support.


8 responses to Nottingham and Nottinghamshire – reinventing democratic public education

    dancingprincesses August 18, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    Don’t have u email so here will have to do. Writing piece about democratic professionalism for TES – FE focus in main re Tutor Voices but would like to quote you (& Eddie Playfair) to broaden – may I email u draft for comment?

    dancingprincesses August 18, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    Great! Fraternally, Joel


    At the end of last year, in your Conversation piece, you wrote of your fears that the College of Teaching would just become another mechanism of control over teachers. Do you still think this is the case?


      I think it will go one of two ways – both are distinct possibilities. One outcome is that the College gains little traction amongst teachers. That the vast majority remain completely unexcited about it and that it flounders and eventually disappears. I think there is a real possibility of this happening. I suspect there is concern amongst proponents about the lack of traction. And there are many examples of bodies like this, in other parts of the world (some close to home), which have left teachers pretty cold (I have spoken directly to colleagues in Ontario – where their College is often invoked as an example of what is possible. Of course it depends who you speak to, but the message I got was ‘approach with caution’).
      The other option is that the College becomes much more involved in professional standards issues – and, for example, promotion may be linked to participation in College activities. I certainly believe that if the College does develop it will do so by taking on more and more functions – and by making itself a central element of a career in teaching (whatever that may look like these days, given that teaching as a life time career is neither sustainable nor encouraged). However, the danger is that the more the College is embroiled in this aspect of teaching the more it becomes part of a managerial apparatus – and teachers participate because it is what they must do to ‘get on’. In this case teachers will experience the College as yet another part of the machinery that tells them what they have to do and how they should do it.
      The reason I am writing this is that I am prevaricating about writing a paper for a conference in two weeks in which we will try to demonstrate that whilst the current system has a rhetoric of ‘decentralisation’ it is, in reality, extraordinarily centralised. The rhetoric is autonomy – the reality is control. Ofsted decides what ‘good’ is – and then that view of education is injected into the bloodstream of the whole school system. The problem is that people have become so accustomed to this that when Ofsted make some minor concession (eg no need to grade lessons) it is hailed as a major victory – but the fundamental system still remains.
      What is needed is much more plurality in the system – and independence – but what we get is the opposite. It is precisely the reason why universities’ role in teacher education is being marginalisesd – who wants future teachers to learn about Paulo Freire for heaven’s sake! [to give you an example – at our recent summer school a teacher said the following ‘I really don’t like who I am at school – this course has helped me understand why that is and given me the confidence to change it’. Call me a conspiracy theorist – but that is the very antithesis of what the new education establishment want to hear. And this was not one of the many ‘older teachers’ that the system now routinely writes off, but a teacher just finishing her NQT year. She was wonderful – but she was already being worn down by some of the insanity of working in a school in a category. Her world needs changing – I am not persuaded a CoT will do it – it may actually make it more difficult to change).
      I am very supportive of much of what the CoT claims to want to do – but I fear it is the wrong solution at the wrong time. It will reinforce the brave new world of an education system more and more tied to the demands of the labour market. I think teachers need to be more radical and more ambitious.
      Of course I may be wrong – I would be happy to be proven wrong – but if I was still a classroom teacher it is not where I’d put my energies.
      Sorry that was a bit of a ramble – that is what happens when you prevaricate . . .


      Sorry Lisa – was rude of me to rant, and not ask what your thoughts are. Talking at, but not listening to. I apologise. Interested to hear your thoughts.


        Hi Howard. I’d like to try to take these points in order, though really I can only comment on the “traction” issue at the moment…but I’ll preface with two thoughts in particular. Firstly, I share your fears that the CoT might not be able to succeed in a world where political control of education has gained a position of perceived normality and neutrality, when it is far from it. And secondly, as a result, I think this is all the more reason that we – teachers – should try to make it happen.

        At the moment, this inevitably feels like trying to set off on your bike in far too high a gear. The chances of any forward movement at all are slim, more likely the stumbles, wobbles and tipping over as imbalance and lack of momentum prevail. But. And here’s where we differ. Teachers have got to do this. If the education system is as you describe, and I believe it is, then we must, absolutely must, give this a go. And it might take 10 years, 20 years. It will for sure take at least 5 years to get off the ground and even begin to become a force and voice to be reckoned with because of the necessary start-up issues. That’s a given. We may want this idealised body that’s going to be our saviour, but we’d be pretty pathetic if we waited for it to be gifted to us by someone else. The whole point of the CoT is that it has to be by teachers, for teachers. The great read of the summer for me has been ‘Flip the System’ – several of these essays have resonance both for my own situation and the situation of the profession as a whole.

        So, you’ve probably gathered that I’m a great supporter of the CoT. And I’m the epitome of the teacher that needs the CoT, that’s how I came to be involved…I went looking for something and found a hole where the CoT should be. What can I do about it? Well, I have to make it happen. Me? Yes, me. And that’s what I’m trying to do.

        You mention the idea of traction. In the teaching world, that traction cannot be achieved without information. Out of almost half a million teachers, I know the vast majority still don’t have a clear idea of what the CoT is, could be or might offer. Let’s face it. It’s hard to promote something that doesn’t yet exist, has no members, no administrative or operational base, no prior successes that can be celebrated and publicised. Information is key. I live in a very out of the way village in north Cumbria. I’m not in a position to physically connect with thousands of teachers in urban areas. So I use my gifts – my interest in writing and my digital connections. If you google you’ll see that I’ve been trying to do this all this year. These blogs, interviews, documents have been seen by thousands, so that’s a start, but these messages need to be made repeatedly, by people (ironically, maybe, given the ‘by teachers, for teachers’ message) more senior than me, and more widely. What can I do about that? I’m one teacher in one school in an out of the way northern area. How do I connect with more like me? Answer, we have to get together, we have to recruit more of us, and we have to enlist the support of people who ARE more senior in educational hierarchies, but whose seniority can get us the stage we need.

        Let me take you through my last couple of days. Today – well, I’m hoping a few people will read this. It’s a sign of how I don’t want to miss any opportunity to share the processes I’m involved in. Yesterday, NCTL published a blog they asked me to write about how I use networking and connections to improve teaching and learning. Part of this included my CoT thoughts – I really believe teachers need it and that it could help them do their jobs better. On Wednesday, I was part of the Guardian Teach expert panel on an online NQT chat. Supporting and welcoming new teachers is so important, but many wonder what it will all lead to. So yes, I did mention the CoT a couple of times, though I didn’t want to make this a theme of my contributions. On Tuesday I travelled from Carlisle down to Sheffield, where a primary colleague, a fellow CoT supporter, Sinead Gaffney, and I led a meeting of academics from 3 northern HEIs, as well as head teachers, Teaching School coordinators, a member of the Teaching School Council and a CEO of a large MAT. Most northern counties are within reach of this group. Within the group, we discussed the manner and methods in which we could offer this information and gain the traction you speak of. Imagine how many teachers can be reached as all these people begin to address their institutions and the many conferences and meetings they attend. Imagine these networks intersecting, so that these messages become more commonplace. We hope to get to this point within about a year. By then, the formal mechanisms of the CoT should be in operation, and more discussion about what the College can and should offer can get underway with teachers at the centre of this.

        I think the CoT has much to offer in terms of a ground up movement of teachers, and in a move towards the democratisation of the system. I’m not saying it will. I’m saying it could. We have to try. Please come back to me if you’d like to discuss this any further.



        Hi Lisa – will reply at greater length shortly. I don’t think we differ at all about the need for teachers to give it a go. The event that I am organising in Nottingham (and which rather oddly, we are attaching our comments to!) is all about doing something – because doing nothing is NEVER an option. I applaud many involved in the CoT for taking action – where we differ is where best to devote that time. That really is an interesting discussion to be had, and I’ll get back to you when I have time to set out some more developed thoughts. In the meantime, there is a great example of innovative bottom up thinking from FE here – embryonic – but genuinely bottom up and independent.

        Let’s keep talking . . .

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