Bruce Douglas reads dispatches from worldwide battles against 'the deadening effect of centralism'
This volume arose out of a unique conference convened at a historic moment. It brought educators struggling with the challenges of a euphoric post-glasnost, post-monolithic Soviet Union, together with the Western sophisticates of Australia, struggling (like us) with the challenges of local school management - a reform embedded in, but also threatening to break up, a long established framework of educational power.
Geographically and socially continents apart, the concerns and anxieties of these Russian and Australian educators are breathtakingly relevant. It is as if the distant view puts our own problems and patterns (and pettinesses) intoperspective.
Worldwide the search is on for an effective, democratic framework for education. "Effective" means, all seem to agree, "localised" decision-making. "school-level" management of resources, and professional freedom from "rigid" central prescription. "Democratic" implies that stakeholders have a say, and something about equity for each child.
Despite that agreement, curiously similar paradoxes emerge, as local politicians, central Government, headteachers and parent groups, all lay conflicting claims to effectiveness or democracy as justification for the lion's share of decision-power, and suddenly we see a breathtaking universality of issue and language.
"The system of education is in a state of disillusionment, because of insufficient funding." Is that a governor in a shire county speaking? No, Alexander Adamsky, a Russian teacher trainer. Unsurprising, you feel - everyone everywhere always thinks times are hard. Then you read heartfelt statements about the evil of a rigid, prescriptive top-down system and how it must eventually reduce educational innovation, and you have to pinch yourself to realise this is not a British educator talking about the national curriculum, but a Russian one talking of the deadening effect of centralism in everything.
Or you read of the growing fear that "the individual student may suffer because of the concern for overall school performance", and realise this is not a jibe at league-table-infested England, but a sober assessment of the effect of "school accountability" in Australia. You find, too, that elsewhere, like here, some are bright enough to spot the difference between a fake concern for democracy ("they are the people's schools" - John Patten) and the real desire to make schools more productive and accountable.
The spectacle of Russians striving to de-politicise education (the Party secretary, present in every school, really did run the show) and to humanise the curriculum ("children must experience democracy to understand it") reminds us how imperfect we are - but also how much good tradition we have.
Useful comparisons continue: experimental attempts in some Australian states with school councils remind us that our traditional governing body oversight could, if we are careless, be perverted to narrow parent (or teacher) interest-group control. Yet trials with regional school boards (with governors and heads serving as school representatives) show us that regional educational bodies do not have to conform to what half a century of LEAs has accustomed us to.
If, like me, you want local management to survive and develop, yet yearn for a single democratic framework within which all self-governing schools will be fairly and equitably united in common purpose, then this book (in some ways a jumble of snippets) authentically reminds us how lucky we are, how fragile is our (or anybody's) contemporary culture and structure, how much we have that is too precious to lose, and how much further we have to go.
While I was reading this book, a group of Russian children visited our school in Lincolnshire. They had so little money the staff had a whip-round, and the school budget share gave them a free meal. How different a world they inhabit from our own students, I thought. But the questions our different systems are trying to answer have much in common. Perhaps, too, our educational frameworks are just not equally unstable.
* Bruce Douglas is principal of Branston Community College, Lincolnshire, and legal secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.