Research on Democratic Schools
This talk was given in Derry's absence to the 2002 IDEC held in New Zealand.
We all know that Democracy and Participation work - but it’s nice to have a bit of evidence all the same!
Unfortunately I left it too late to get an affordable deal from Air New Zealand, which is my bad luck. But your good luck is that you will hear this read in David Gribble’s cut-glass Etonian dialect!
Towards the end of 2000 I was one of the speakers at a conference in Sheffield, England with the previous English minister of education David Blunkett. In his talk he claimed that the government was creating a school system that was ‘inclusive’ - that would offer real equality of opportunity for all students from whatever background. As a school inspector I could not make this fit with what I was seeing in many secondary schools as a direct result of the system of ‘league tables’ which the minister also supported. In order to get a higher ‘league table’ position some head teachers were, and still are, putting disproportionate effort and resources into helping/pressuring students who were getting grades just below the borderline for inclusion in the ‘league table’ score. (The ‘benchmark’ for league table position is the number of students getting 5 or more Grade A*-C results in the English GCSE examination at the end of compulsory schooling at age16). The students who could not achieve these grades however hard they tried are not stupid despite their E-G grades. They understand what is going on and quite reasonably conclude that ,whatever the official school rhetoric claims, they are of little value. They, frequently students who are already suffering from multiple disadvantage, respond to this assault on their self-esteem by not coming to school or by behaving in such a way that they are told not to come or excluded.
I did what one speaker is not really supposed to do to another and challenged the minister on this contradiction between ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘league tables.’ Frankly as this was his home constituency and as he was in front of several hundred teachers and policy makers I expected the usual politician’s evasion and put-down. To my surprise he looked very thoughtful for a few moments and asked ‘What do you suggest?’ I replied that in my experience of eighty inspections I had found a few schools (three actually) that resisted the league table pressure and genuinely set out to create opportunities for serious participation and involvement in decision making for all students. They did this through a combination of creative and negotiative pedagogy, extensive extra-curricular activities over which the students had a significant degree of control, involvement with the wider community, and effectively democratic student/school governance procedures. This, I claimed, raised self-esteem and motivation to learn for all students rather than attacking it for the academically weakest. I went on to claim that in my opinion these schools had better attendance, fewer exclusions and better GCSE scores at 5 A*-G grades than the average school in similar social circumstances. (Achievable by any student who is motivated and does not have a serious learning disability.) His response again surprised me - ‘I promise you that I will have that investigated.’ - though I didn’t really expect him to.
To my utter amazement a week or two later I received a phone call from Bernard Crick (now Sir Bernard) , the ministerial adviser for citizenship education, saying that the minister had taken the point very seriously and asking me if I would do some research to test my claim. There was an election coming and the minister feared hostility towards the new citizenship curriculum that had been his personal ’pet’ project.. He especially feared attack from elements on the right , including the ex-chief inspector Chris Woodhead, on the question of ‘participation and action skills’ which the minister had personally insisted were to be included in the new curriculum.
So - for once in my life I was totally motivated to work for a politician.£25,000 was transferred by the ministry to CSV , a leading ‘citizenship’ NGO and we set to work. Drawing on data from my own data-base and inspection experience and a wide range of organisations that ran highly student participative projects in secondary schools we identified 50 state secondary schools (out of 3700 in England) that we felt deserved the title ‘more than usually student participative.’ We then trawled through their inspection reports, which are public documents in England, for supportive evidence. This reduced the field to 20 and these were invited to participate in the study. 12 finally accepted from a full range of socio-economic environments - rural, suburban, and inner-city.
There was not time to do the kind of work that would justify claims as to causality. Just enough to see if in these 12 schools the data would throw up ‘associations’ between higher than usual amounts of student participation and better than ‘average for type of school’ GCSE results, attendance, and exclusion figures.
A fairly comprehensive and demanding working definition of ‘participation’ was created and shared with the schools. Questionnaires and semi-structured interviews were conducted with head teachers and other senior managers, 38 teachers and 240 students to attempt to ascertain the breadth, depth and continuity of the student participation. A mountain of school documentation was scrutinised. Ofsted, the school inspection service, was then asked to run a statistical check on the GCSE results, attendance and exclusion data for these schools over the previous three years and compare these individually and collectively with the national averages for ‘similar schools.’ (The measure for similarity was the per-centage of students entitled to receive free school meals. This is a less than perfect indicator of social circumstances but the only one available.) The GCSE figures used included those for 5 A*-G (the grades that are achievable by just about all who try), 5 A*-C (the grades achievable by the more academic students that figure in the league tables), and another measure known as APS (average point score). Working closely with Ofsted in this way was an interesting experience for me as quite recently I had been an ‘expert‘ adviser to the legal team that successfully rescued Summerhill School from threat of closure by the very same Ofsted!! But in the event their statisticians were great and worked hard to generate the data sets that we needed.
I won’t go into too much detail of the conduct of the study and the findings here as the full report to the minister with a great deal of data is on-line at (If you e-mail me at I can send you an abridged version or just the executive summary.) . But it was exciting to read the first print-out from Ofsted that said in their unmistakable language ‘...that when compared with similar schools these...are perfoming consistently better than expected.’ This was most obviously the case at 5 A*-G grades as I had predicted. But it was also the case at 5 A*-C grades! So the schools that were not just focusing on the grades of the most academic and the borderline academic were actually getting better results from those students in an ethos that cared for everybody than in a more competitive and exclusive ethos. Everyone benefited when everyone was included in decision making processes and given at least some control over their learning! What’s more the attainment gap between these ‘participative’ schools and the ‘average for similar schools’ was getting wider each year. The exclusion figures were also clearly better than average for the ‘participative’ schools and some, even in less favoured environments, were not excluding any students at all in some years! The attendance figures were less strikingly different overall - some schools doing consistently much better than others but there was no time to investigate this further.
Overall I could claim that ‘Within the limitations of the study the ‘associations’ predicted in the initial hypothesis have been confirmed in the 12 selected ‘student participative’ schools.’
The positive comments of both students and teachers, very many of which are quoted in the report, indicated a sufficient degree of transformed relationships and transformed attitudes towards self-as-learner to be able to claim that some sort of ‘critical mass’ of democratic participation was being created. These schools felt different to most of the schools I have inspected. to a degree that I felt that it was meaningful to describe them as ‘participative schools.’
Now I know that there will be participants at IDEC who will not find this particularly surprising or impressive. Those of you who, not without some cause, feel that state systems are probably beyond redemption may well feel that I am talking about re-arranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic and you may well be right. Certainly people I respect such as Roland Meighan or John Taylor Gatto would say so. There can be little doubt that some schools are so destructive of the self-esteem of some of their students that non-attendance can be in some cases a rational least-worst decision. The five GCSE passes of some, maybe even most, students may well have little intrinsic value. BUT the fact is that state schools are where most of our young people are and unless one takes the view that any good news from the state system is in fact bad news that will just sustain its absurdities for a little longer than historical imperatives would otherwise dictate, we have to celebrate the fact that some progress is possible within them. In my experience the models do exist. The problem is how to replicate them. No doubt my old friend Yaakov has talked about this - I wish I could be here to hear him! We will see what difference the introduction of citizenship education in England will bring with its requirement for ‘participation and action’ for all secondary students from this September. At least for once a decent longitudinal research programme will be in place - and I have to pinch myself that people like me have actually been consulted both over this and over the inspection arrangements for the new curriculum.
Anyway - the study has been surprisingly well received in England and it is a source of amazement that nobody had done anything like it before. The minister, Blunkett, welcomed the findings and they did in fact provide him with some election armour plate to defend his commitment to ‘participation and action’ in the curriculum. He felt that it gave him the initiative and that it was now up to the opposition to produce significant counter evidence if they wished to claim that more student participation would undermine ‘standards.’ In its small way the study/report gave a bit of strength to all of us who have not entirely given up hope that a more equitable, democratic and participative school experience is possible for young people in our state schools.
I am widely quoted as saying that ‘learning about democracy in school is like reading holiday brochures in prison’ - actually I was mis-quoted in a typically Antipodean way by Roger Holdsworth - and it has spread. You can find it on the net in French and even Norwegian. What I actually said was ‘when I was at school learning about democracy in school was etc etc... and in many schools this is still the case.’ BUT - I honestly believe that thanks to some inspired work by some teachers against all the odds there are some state secondary schools where this is not the case - and more to the point the students will tell you so!
Thank you for listening.
P.S. REQUEST FOR ADVICE/HELP Cambridge University and the DfES (English ministry of education) have commissioned me to explore the international education literature for examples of similar studies to the ‘Hannam Report’. I would be VERY pleased to hear from anyone who either has or is doing similar work anywhere or who can point me at any similar work that is being or has been done. And please don’t be shy if it isn’t too similar. I am interested in anything that demonstrates the outcomes of participative/democratic approaches to education that has at least some hard or ‘hardish’ data. I promise a free copy of my final report to all who contact me!
Reproduced with kind permission from AERO