Published on April 15, 2016

Schools and the expert delusion

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

2271182784_c4210fc794_zThere is a belief, prevalent in most, though thankfully not all, parts of government that ‘ordinary’ members of the public are incapable of contributing to and making most of the decisions that politicians and civil servants have to make. Instead, the belief is that experts are are the only ones capable of making effective decisions; the public are irrational, take on a mob mentality and slow down decision-making.

Let’s call this belief the ‘expert delusion’. Because it is a delusion. It is a delusion that is, ironically, not backed-up by the evidence. And like most delusions it can be damaging and lead to sub-optimal, expensive and counter-productive decisions.

The latest manifestation of the expert delusion appears in the government’s plans to turn every school in England into an academy. A key part of the plan laid out by Secretary of State Nicky Morgan is that schools will no longer be required to reserve spaces for parent governors, because “being a parent is not a sufficient qualification to be a school governor.” The aim instead is to focus on recruiting professionals with skills in business and finance, for example.

This is a very narrow definition of skills and totally neglects the much wider range of skills, knowledge and experience that parents and members of the wider community can bring to the decision-making process.

Parents can obviously be a critical source of insight and early warning where things might be going wrong at a school. These insights will be difficult for experts drawn from outside the school community to get without resorting to potentially expensive surveys and consultation exercises.

In addition, parents will bring wider experiences which could be used to enrich the education of the whole school community. They will also have networks and access to community assets which could significantly support the development and growth of a school. All of these parental resources risk being lost if the governance of the school is professionalised and hidden from the community the school aims to serve.

Our own work, on the highly technical and complex issues raised by scientific innovation, for example, demonstrates that the public bring invaluable perspectives that enhance rather than diminish decision-making. All that is required is some prior thought and planning to ensure that everyone, experts, decision makers and the public are valued and given the space needed to contribute effectively.

There is a wider, democratic point too. Schools are at the centre of communities, nearly everyone will have a child, grandchild, niece or cousin either at school, or with a child at school. In educating our young people schools are helping to make real the kind of future citizen we want forming our society. Removing ‘unprofessional’ parents from governing boards risks leaving schools floating free from the very society they are so critical in helping to form.

Image credit: Radcliffe Dacanay, Flickr Creative Commons 

One Response to “Schools and the expert delusion”

  1. April 21, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    Excellent piece, Simon.

    Parents and children are experts in what it is like to learn in their school. That’s insight that matters for any school looking to excel.

    I have blogged on a related theme on standing up for parent governors – in March.


Leave a Reply