Re-democratising school governance


Message from the Editor:

In this latest blog, Jan asks us to consider the extent to which decision-making interactions are deliberatively democratic. She argues that deliberative democracy has the potential to renew institutions, help guide policy-making and shape action.Drawing on the educational governance literature, Jan talks of a ‘democratic deficit’ in governance and suggests that marketisation has tended to take precedence over participation. She makes a strong case for ‘deliberative communication’ and ‘democratic localism’ where responsiveness at the local level is augmented and where talk and voices are legitimised.

We look forward to hearing more about Jan’s doctoral research which is exploring co-operative values, democracy and parental engagement in governance, which will no doubt be of great interest to members of our Governance RIG.

Please post any comments about this, or other blogs, using #BELMASblog

 - Suzanne

Author: Jan Hetherington


In June 2020, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), delivered a keynote speech as part of the RSA’s Bridges to the Future series.  He reiterated the essential role of deliberative democracy and the need for it to take its place alongside representative democracy in all levels of governance.  He presented representative democracy as a blunt tool, which is sharpened through the essential use of deliberative democracy to renew democratic institutions.  His view, and that of the RSA, is that deliberative democracy guides and shapes policy, opening up new policy options, and demonstrates willingness for participants to consider radical action.   The RSA’s stance chimes with a growing belief of how essential it is to increase participation in public policy decision making at all levels.  Furthermore, Rita Locatelli’s (2019) work on reframing education for public and common good by enhancing democratic governance, underlines this.

Current Governance situation

What it means to be educated and who should control education is a contentious debate, “a crucial struggle” between neoliberalism, market-driven outcomes for education and identity (Riddle and Apple, 2019).  The professionalisation of school and academy governance and a focus on externally-determined outputs have created a democratic deficit, with empowerment and participation coming secondary to market principles of value for money, relevant skills and knowledge and a narrow, instrumentalised conception of good governance (Wilkins, 2014). Democracy is believed to be impractical, and incongruent with New Public Management systems of surveillance of, and by, the governing body with increased accountability to both the Department for Education and Ofsted (Wilkins, 2014).  A  more centralised control over academy governance (Wilkins, 2016) alongside smaller, non-stakeholder governing bodies (Connolly, et al., 2017) raises questions over how stakeholder voices are represented and how academies (and schools) are governed to ensure accountability and support is responsive to the needs of the community and parents; what Woods and Simkins (2014) refer to as ‘localisation’.

So how does Deliberative Democracy fit in?

Deliberation, arguably, is central to any democracy; it gives voice and responds to localisation.  The more inclusive, authentic and consequential the deliberation is, the more democratic the process and polity is.  Individual innovations (mini publics or citizens’ juries) by themselves have limited long-term impact to the re-democratisation of governance, however the development of a deliberative democratic system has greater impact (Dryzek, 2017).  Legitimising different types of talk and voice such as story-telling (Engelken-Jorge, 2016), everyday talk, testimony as well as rhetoric (Mansbridge et al., 2012), from talk at the school gates to more formal sites of decision-making deliberation in  school governance (Mansbridge et al., 2012) is central to deliberative communication.  What is fundamental for successful deliberation and what differentiates deliberation from talk is that consequentiality is achieved and that the communication was decision-orientated, has exchanged reason-giving, and resulted in an exercise of power, directly or indirectly. 

How can we re-democratise our governance structures and practices?

When considering how to re-democratise polities, such as school governance, I believe ‘democratic’ localism (Hodgson and Spours, 2012) is fundamental, shifting power back to stakeholders and the community in which an academy sits. Democratic localism has at its heart a focus upon public value (Mazzucato and Ryan-Collins, 2019) and decentralisation, rather than market-driven outcomes and centralisation.  Democratic localism refocuses the balance of power, resources and relationships between national, regional and local bodies.  It secures the participation of local, public and community members as part of decision-making and co-production of services; it has public value or common good as its value base; and ensures effective, bottom-up feedback in policy development (Bryk et al., 1999). Central to democratic localism, and to democratising current governance systems, is the role of deliberative democratic processes within a system. Securing the participation of those stakeholders in authentic, inclusive and consequential opportunities, and not just presenting parents and stakeholders as consumers, for whom customer satisfaction surveys are sufficient, is key.

For democratic localism to be a viable alternative, reform needs to occur, not only at the site of localism but also at state level (Locatelli, 2019; Hodgson and Spours, 2012).  A democratic cultural shift is needed, which requires political courage to give away power, and focus upon public services, particularly education, as a common good (Locatelli, 2019).  This presents a distinct and limited role for the state and an acceptance that there is a new role in securing entitlement, setting standards and policy principles amongst others.  Locatelli (2019) suggests that this cultural shift needs to occur also at the supranational level as globalisation exists in determining policy at a global, national/state level and ultimately at a local level. The challenge is to take the first step, and to evaluate how deliberatively democratic the decision-making interactions are within the governance polity, and with the stakeholders.

Jan Hetherington is currently an EdD student at Staffordshire University, whose research interests are focussed on governance, democracy, social justice, Bourdieu, policy and parental and community engagement.  Her thesis is exploring the Co-operative Academy Trust and its model of governance in relation to co-operative values, democracy and parental engagement in a neoliberal context of education.  She has had papers accepted for BELMAS Conference 2020 and ECR BERA Symposium 2020.  She is in receipt of a BELMAS Student Research Bursary and was also awarded a bursary from the Dr Ruth Thompson Global Teaching Scholarship Fund in 2020.

Jan is also a Vice-Principal of a campus of three schools in north Oxfordshire and is a current SLE for leadership of curriculum.  She develops and delivers middle leaders development courses for her trust and delivers training for newly designated SLEs for two TSAs, amongst many other leadership CPD opportunities designed and delivered by Jan.  All approaches to Jan’s CPD delivery are facilitated through a coaching approach, for which Jan has a ILM level 5 qualification.

Follow Jan on Twitter here @janeth_EdD.

Reference List:

Bryk, A.S., Sebring, P.B., Allensworth, E., Easton, J.Q. and Luppescu, S. (2010) Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Connolly, M., Farrell, C. & James, C. (2017) ‘An analysis of the stakeholder model of public boards and the case of school governing bodies in England and Wales’. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45(1), pp.5–19.

Dryzek, J.S. (2017). The forum, the system and the polity: Three varieties of democratic theory. Political Theory 45(5): 610–636.

Engelken-Jorge, M. (2016): “Narrative Deliberation? On Storytelling as a Necessary Component of Public Deliberation”, Política y Sociedad, 53 (1), pp. 79-99.

Hodgson, A and Spours, K. (2012) ‘Three versions of ‘localism’: implications for upper secondary education and lifelong learning in the UK’, Journal of Education Policy, 27:2, 193-210,

Locatelli, R. (2020) Reframing Education as s Public and Common Good. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Mansbridge, J., Bohman, J., Chambers, S., Christiano, T., Fung, A., Parkinson, J., Thompson .D.F. and Warren, M. E. (2012) ‘A Systemic Approach to Deliberative Democracy’ In  Parkinson, J. & Mansbridge, J. (eds.) (2012) Deliberative systems: Deliberative democracy at the large scale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mazzucato, M. and Ryan-Collins, J. (2019).’ Putting value creation back into ‘public value’: From market fixing to market shaping’. UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, Working Paper Series (IIPP WP 2019-05).

Riddle, S.  and Apple, M. (2019) (eds)   Re-imaging Education for democracy. Routledge: London

Wilkins, A. (2014)  School governance and neoliberal political rationality: what has democracy got to do with it?  presented at ‘Towards a democratic-common school governance: beyond neoliberal (UK) and neoconservative (Spain) models’, International seminar 30-31 October 2014, University of Vic - UCC (Barcelona).

Wilkins, A. (2016) Modernising school governance: Corporate planning and expert handling in state education. Routledge: London

Woods, P. and Simkins, T. (2014) ‘Understanding the local’. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 42(3), pp.324–340.


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