Why the people must speak out

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Margaret Tulloch urges us to overcome our cynicism about the Government's poor consultation record

The idea that the public should be consulted about changes to the education service seems to be falling out of favour. The Government seemed not to want parents, teachers and governors to know that its White Paper Self-Government for Schools, which preceded the new Education Bill, was itself a consultation document - and one that proposed to take a substantial swipe at the rights of the public to be consulted. The details of when and where to send responses were buried in the White Paper and the summary sent at public expense to every school gave no inkling of the fact that this was a consultation exercise.

In any case schools could be forgiven for greeting government consultation with a weary cynicism. "They're going to do it anyway" is the comment which often greets the Campaign for State Education (CASE) when we try to encourage a response. Any government should be worried by this. Government-weary cynicism is a short step from seeing any elected government as irrelevant. If schools in particular see government as irrelevant, there could be far-reaching consequences for the health of our democracy.

The widespread cynicism is an understandable response from the evidence of the length of time allowed for consultation and the notice ultimately taken of it. Kenneth Baker set the trend - "consulting" about a national curriculum and its assessment over the summer holidays. The cost of that lack of consultation and unwillingness to listen was high both in terms of public money and morale. Sir Ron Dearing was able to come to the government's rescue because of his genuine belief in consultation. There are guidelines on the timing of consultation which the Department for Education and Employment is encouraged to follow - 10 weeks excluding school holidays - but a get-out clause allows government to use the legislative timetable as an excuse for a shorter time for responses.

Even if a reasonable time is allowed it seems little notice is taken of responses. When the Government consulted over scrapping minimum space allocations in the school premises regulations, of 119 responses only one supported the change. The Government went ahead. 124 responded to the Secretary of State's draft circular proposing selection of up to 15 per cent of pupils without publishing statutory proposals. Of these only 15 welcomed the proposals, others opposed selection in principle and were concerned about the impact of provision of school places locally. The DFEE said: " After careful consideration of the results of the consultation exercise, Ministers decided to proceed broadly as planned." Willingness of a parent to sign a home-school contract is now a legitimate criterion to use in admission criteria for oversubscribed schools although the consultation document which gave rise to the new admissions circular did not specifically ask for views on such a proposal.

Ministers did find it more difficult to dismiss the huge reaction against fast-track opt-out for church schools - the ideal was dropped. However it is likely that these proposals were only put forward because the Prime Minister went out on a limb in advancing them and that the overwhelming opposition got the DFEE off the hook.

There seem to be two types of consultation. Those, like that on the common funding formula, where ministers actually do want to hear from respondents because one suspects they don't know what to do. And others where we all know they're going to do it anyway and the consultation is a farce. So why should we bother responding to the second type of "consultation"? We should. If we don't, then without evidence to support their claims, the parliamentary Opposition and what Government is wont to call the "education establishment" can speak only for themselves. Silence is interpreted as support.

Education is everybody's business. We all have a stake in good education for our children. If we all had been entitled to a voice over the past few years I believe the education system would have been the better for it. Certainly less public money would have been wasted. If a clear shared view points one way it must be in the interests of good government to listen. At the very least those opposed should feel their views are taken seriously not summarily dismissed.

Of course governments must govern and even lead but the best and most long-lived reforms must be those which have majority support. Surely a good government does not rely solely on its overall mandate from one general election to another. Did grammar schools figure in the last manifesto?

Currently the education service suffers because many of the people involved are disillusioned because they believe they have no chance of being heard. If all are to have a say, structures and time are needed to allow it to happen. CASE is arguing for a democratic framework which would give elected parents, governors, school staff and the community the right to have a say in education policy-making. We would like to see elected local and national education forums of parents, pupils, governors and teachers which national and local governments would be required to consult. Schools would be encouraged to give pupils a say and every school should have a parent council made up of elected class representatives who would meet regularly with parent-governors.

Real consultation is lengthy - even tedious. It does not hit the headlines, unlike the well-placed soundbite. Elected representative bodies consulting through regional and local levels would by their very nature be likely to be conservative with a small "c". The campaigning groups, associations and unions would have an even more vital role to play in setting an alternative agenda by putting forward ideas and mobilising support for them.

If representative, directly elected bodies supported a government's proposals then the government could rightly claim grassroots support. Successful implementation would be more likely. If a truly representative democratic body given to time to come to a shared view finds against a government's proposals, government should at least take notice. At the very least if a government ignores the views of a representative body it would be unable to claim to speak on behalf of interested parties, as ministers frequently have about parents, for example, and get away with it.

Margaret Tulloch is executive secretary of the Campaign for State Education. Their schools or ours, CASE proposals on giving a voice to pupils, parents, staff, governors and the community at school, local and national level costs Pounds 1.50 from CASE, 158 Durham Road, London SW2O ODG

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