In general, most of us probably feel that democracy is a good thing – better at least than anarchy, fascism, dictatorship and the many shades of totalitarianism on display around the world. Yes, we would take democracy over those any day.
Winston Churchill’s joke - “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” - is playful rather than hostile. For all our frustrations with irritating bureaucracy or irritating politicians, we forget at our peril how privileged are to be part of a country that has democracy deep in its collective bloodstream.
And it’s on principles of democracy that I was quick to criticise the proposals in the government’s new education White Paper. These are the ideas designed to define the next phase of schooling in England.
To my mind, it’s a collection of wacky wheezes which are unlikely to do much to improve the quality of education but will undermine our cherished principles of democracy.
First, there’s the announcement about forced academisation. The plan is that all schools will be taken out of local authority control and made to join multi-academy trusts. Why? It seems an odd policy, and you wonder why the Education Secretary is picking a fight on such flimsy evidence.
After all, there are good and bad academies. If governors, parents and staff decide to convert their school to academy status in order to gain extra cash or enjoy supposed new freedoms, then that’s up to them. But forcing schools to become academies seems hugely misguided.
Take the primary schools I work with in the Bury Schools Partnership. Here there are a dozen or so schools all rated by Ofsted as being good or outstanding, all working in partnership to keep raising standards for our children, and creating opportunities to provide more music, science, sport, languages and other essential experiences for every child, whatever their background.
It might be that parents would prefer headteachers to be poring over spreadsheets and drawing up business plans. But my guess is that most parents would prefer school leaders to focus on children, and certainly to be spending money intended for education on children rather than hefty fees for lawyers.
After all, the average cost of every academy conversion in England over the past five years has been - according to the schools minister - a whopping £66,000. That’s money which could have been used for teachers and textbooks rather than changing structures.
In any case, the Education Act of 1870 established local schools for local communities. It has long been a proud tradition that schools are accountable to their towns and villages through elected local authorities and elected local governors.
Why on earth is a political party so steeped in democratic values now proposing not only to abolish local authorities but to remove the need for parent governors – the very people who have the biggest stake in the success of a school?
This seems like misguided policy-making. It’s hard to know why something so momentous didn’t appear in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. It’s hard to understand why it was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the Education Secretary. It’s hard to see quite why an assault on principles of local democracy could be unleashed with so little consultation and with such rabbit-in-the-headlights political panic.
My guess – for what it’s worth – is that forced academisation won’t happen. The Department for Education has a poor track record of implementing anything. Just look at the mess they are making of primary testing.
And no politician is going to want to pick a fight with schools that are already doing well, popular with parents, and run by headteachers who see their role as being about education not moneymaking.
We shall see.
In the meantime three cheers for democracy – especially for parent governors who ask difficult questions – and three cheers for local schools accountable and answerable to their local communities. It’s education as it ought to be.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds