Battle in Print: For subject-centred education: 4. the parochialism of localism

Shirley Lawes, 22 October 2010

These six essays are written by members of the Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum. They make the case for subject-centred education. Whilst the Lib-Con coalition nominally supports a return to subject-centred teaching, there’s in fact little coherence or sense of direction to their educational strategy. More specifically, we believe subject-centred education should be defended as a method of transmitting knowledge and understanding to new generations. It should be driven by an aspiration to create a society of truly educated citizens, and foster greater intellectual autonomy and freedom for everybody.

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4. The parochialism of localism

Government policy has made a decisive turn away from state-controlled community services. Instead, it wants to ‘free up’ local communities to provide many of their own local amenities on the basis of local need. This seems a positive move after years of central direction. How much power and responsibility it will be possible to devolve to local communities is uncertain. But, the principle may work if it enables and empowers teachers to organise things for themselves.

An obvious worry is the burden of responsibility for education will be shifted from government to groups of people in local communities. They, not government, will be held accountable. This would allow the Coalition to shed its educational responsibilities.

The fallacy of local educational needs

The ‘localism’ agenda extends to education most recently through an expansion of the Academies and promotion of Free Schools. The latter are schools set up by parents, teachers and other interested groups to meet the perceived local needs of a particular community. But can we talk of ‘local needs’ in education in the same way as housing, social and health services? The logic of the local may be readily understood and agreed in housing policy, but the idea of applying the same principles to schools suggests that children in one particular town have fundamentally different educational needs from those in the town next door.

In fact, the educational needs of children are exactly the same the entire nation over. All pupils need academic English, Maths, Science, History, Languages, an Arts education, and much more besides, whether they live in Brighton, Bolton, or Basildon. The real danger is the fallacy of ‘local educational needs’ will give licence to a narrow parochialism, when schools are in fact charged with broadening the child’s mind and taking them beyond the limits of the particular locality in which they happened to be raised. If an idea is worth knowing, then surely it’s every pupil’s entitlement, regardless of postcode.

Any school can now apply to become an Academy. It can thus achieve a far greater degree of autonomy and freedom to organise itself more or less independently of their local education authority, but within the state sector. This means these schools are accountable to the secretary of state and subject to many of the audit and inspection mechanisms of their ‘bog-standard’ peers. What’s new about the Coalition’s policy in relation to Academies is the programme is being extended to all areas, whereas previously it was confined to areas of deprivation. Primary and special schools are also being encouraged to apply for Academy status. At the same time parents, teachers, community groups, anyone in fact, will have the support and encouragement to set up their own free schools.

Localism doesn’t mean autonomy

Celebrating ‘the local’ in education may seem an attractive proposition following the excessive micro-management of recent years. That more parents, teachers and financial sponsors can improve on state schools opens up many possibilities. These include providing a more challenging educational experience; innovating and experimenting; even restoring a focus on transmitting knowledge through subject disciplines. But real autonomy is an illusion when education is more concerned with well-being and an instrumental view of knowledge, together with an obsession over exam results and league tables. Only a few will have the nerve to break out of the prevailing ethos and offer a truly different educational experience. More likely, the liberties offered by Academy status, particular being exempt from crucial aspects of the National Curriculum, will consolidate these negative trends. It will mean offering a curriculum that represents the lowest academic challenge to students and therefore yields the highest ‘results’ in school league tables.

A number of Academies are already well-established, mostly in poor areas of inner cities with a specific mission to improve the performance of what were low-achieving schools. Some Academies have adopted an apparently strong ethos of promoting academic success. In others, since they’re not obliged to follow the National Curriculum, there’s been a shift towards social training. A vocationally-orientated curriculum is designed to meet ‘local needs’. This essentially means identifying young people from working class areas as needing a different sort of curriculum because of their ‘challenging’ social background. An example of this is the Royal Society of Arts sponsored academy. Its Opening Minds project offers a competence-based curriculum emphasising core life skills delivered through cross-curricular modules and programmes for encouraging citizenship and promoting health. For the Education Forum, this is the very antithesis of what education could and should be.

Education is a universal value

Free Schools take the notion of responding to local needs a significant stage further. To aim to provide a high quality education for children in a particular locality may be seen as a laudable project. But essentially it represents a retreat from education as a universal value. In the absence of any common vision of education, local schools will end up being a celebration of the parochial. There will be a disparity of expectations of - and aspirations for - children and young people that will be divisive, and add to educational inequality. The core contradiction in the Coalition’s thinking is that it aims to restore a subject-centred education with a common purpose for all children, emphasising the importance of a subjects; but its mechanism for achieving this is to encourage an educational free-for-all that seriously undermine the original aim.

The fundamental issue is not what sort of buildings or internal organisation schools adopt. It’s whether the broader society has a belief in education, not as an instrumental good with a contingent relationship to the needs of the economy, but as a good in itself. What’s needed is a vision that restores the idea education is about taking individuals beyond themselves; that regards knowledge of subjects as the key to opening minds; and introduces them individuals to an appreciation of the achievements of humanity and an understanding of the world. Managerial tinkering is at best a waste of teachers’ time.

But, more seriously, it can contribute to a further lowering of expectations about what schools are for. We need to take stock of what education has come to mean today and repose the question ‘what is education for?’ or, to put it another way: what education do we want for all our children? Local schools for local communities, meeting local needs, represents an abandonment of ‘education for all’. Whether they offer autonomy, the possibility of creativity or even a liberal curriculum, the tendency is against a subject-centred education for all.

‘The local’ is a new low point for education because it implicitly restricts access to knowledge that may transform pupil’s ideas by taking them out of their parochial environment and concerns. It literally keeps people in their place.


subject leader, modern foreign Languages, Institute of Education; author, Modern Foreign Languages: teaching school subjects 11-19

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