It’s time for elected local education authorities in Britain

There is a lot to learn coming from Canada about the complicated education system serving England and Wales.

Differences abound from the widespread use of uniforms, to near-universal behavioural challenges, to the fact students don’t earn diplomas but are expected to either take the right classes to go to college (a step toward university) or just drift off into the workforce. There is also an intense effort by the government to oversee every aspect of the system through a convoluted merit-pay system and the teacher’s unions were debilitated by Margaret Thatcher.

Beyond all of that though, England has never had elected school boards – or Local Education Authorities as they’re called here. Basically, the local municipal or city council just appoints a few bureaucrats to run the schools.

This naturally raises the question: Are appointed or elected school boards more effective?

Interestingly, this question was raised by the City of Chicago, where there is a push is on to create an elected board. Currently the mayor appoints the Board.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago wanted to give the question the academic treatment and following a review of the research and their analysis of the effectiveness of the Mayor’s Board gave the following key findings [pdf]:

  1. There is no conclusive evidence that mayoral control and mayor-appointed boards are more effective at governing schools or raising student achievement.
  2. The Board’s policies of top-down accountability based on standardized tests, and its simultaneous expansion of selective-enrolment schools, expanded a two-tier education system in Chicago.
  3. Under the mayor-appointed Board, CPS has made little progress in academic achievement and other measures of educational improvement, and on nearly every measure there are persistent, and in some cases, widening gaps between white students and African American and Latino students.
  4. The Board’s policy of closing neighbourhood schools and opening charter schools has generally not improved education for the students affected. In some cases, it has made things worse.
  5. Although data on charter schools, nationally and locally, are mixed, there is no evidence that, overall, CPS’ charter schools are significantly better than its traditional public schools.
  6. Chicago’s mayor appointed board is comprised of elite decision makers who are neither representative of the student population of CPS nor directly accountable to the public. Board structures and processes severely limit public input in decisions.

Based on this, the authors come out strongly in favour of an elected board and call for an urgent course shift.

While the background in England is different than Chicago, I think there are important similarities.

First, England has a very heavy top-down school system. Teachers are responsible to the school administration, who is dually responsible to the local authority and government regulators. Lessons will be observed randomly and students performances are almost uniformly judged on nationwide standardized tests (which are of extremely dubious pedagogical value).

Second, by keeping school control out of democratic accountability, similar closure and transparency issues are inevitable. In Edmonton a few years ago, parents protested continual school closures and influence the Board to put a moratorium on closures until the issue could be studied. This wouldn’t happen in a system where bureaucrats don’t need to worry about their job security every 3-5 years. Here in England, this means council staff are more than happy to outsource school administration to corporate academies and religious institutions if it means cost savings. The effect on the students and community becomes irrelevant.

Finally, the last point is especially pertinent as demographics in England’s larger cities begin to shift. While democracy doesn’t guarantee representative diversity, it does offer non-traditional routes to give voice to often-marginalized groups. One doesn’t need to be Oxford-educated or a party hack to be elected to a school board but the path to influencing backroom bureaucrats is less clear.

It’s also important to note that the Chicago study pre-empts some of the eventual arguments against any change. They note that the appointed boards are not necessarily more efficient and in fact, since a democratic board is more responsive to local needs, may actually put its limited funding to better use.

Of course there is little to allay concerns that elected local education authorities would simply introduce another field for the bitter partisanship of English politics to do battle on. Already Conservatives, Labour, and Lib Dems (and I guess the Greens and UKIP to a lesser extent) fight for control over Westminster and local councils, but the experience of the Vancouver School Board, which does feature partisan politics, suggests it may not be that damning.

Perhaps the biggest danger though is for the ability of local boards to introduce anti-science measures – whether it’s creationism, anti-vax, or anti-wifi, school boards in North America tend to be easy targets for the pseudoscientific forces.