Structure and policy as essential drivers

Policy-making in our experience is often seen as a process trapped in a maze that only turns in on itself. But Bell and Stevenson talk about traditional notions of policy-making in education as having certain logical characteristics. In order to understand how educational policy shapes and is shaped by the actions of those who have the responsibility for implementing it, certain dimensions need to be added to the analytical framework. These take account of both how the content of policy emerges from the economic, social and political factors, explore more fully the consequences of policy and focus in more on the processes of moving from policy formulation to policy in practice. The proposed addition to this has four levels: the sociopolitical environment from which policy, based on the dominant discourse, is derived; the strategic direction which emanates from the socio-political environment and which broadly defines policy; organizational principles which indicate the parameters within which policy is to be implemented; and operational practices, based on the organizational principles, that are necessary to implement the policy at the institutional level and to translate such policy implementation into institutional procedures and specific programs of action.3

As always, there are discrepancies between hopes, assumptions, and impacts of educational policy on schools. Groups of researchers defined the salient consequences of policy agendas in England, which have had a power influence over schools and classrooms and should be subject to rigorous critique and challenges.4 The list of consequences that might be noticeable include:

  • • The seductive power of managerialism, which is built on the argument that schools should be more tightly managed, more transparent and more easily held to account, and what leads to often unanswered questions: Accountability for what? What is measured, by whom, and in what ways? How do we disentangle the school effect from that of communities, social agencies, private tutoring, and social and educational capital of families?
  • • The conflict between control and autonomy that depends on the impossible to contest the notion of “successful” and “failing” schools.
  • • The resilience of the positional power and hierarchy in schools.
  • • The pressure for stronger individual leadership that might be practiced only by heroes.
  • • The lack of space for independence of thought, both in classrooms and among teachers.
  • • The de-professionalizing the effects of policy and practice on leaders and teachers. They need to follow standardized recommendation and gain prestige only when recognized by school inspections. The culture of compliance had impacted school and teachers.
  • • The constant pressure on delivering immediate results. Educational leaders felt the half of all demands fell into category of urgent but not important, experiencing tyranny of the urgent.5

Since the 1980s, two contradictory tendencies have increasingly come to dominate official policy-making in education. On the one hand, there has been a growing emphasis on the role of the quasi-markets in provisions publicly funded education, centered on the discourses and practices of choice, competition, and devolved decision-making, which positions parents and students as consumers and school and universities as small businesses competing with each other for students. And on the other hand, there has been increased emphasis on more direct forms of central state regulations of educational institutions and teachers who work in them. The second tendency is manifested in the construction of systems of accountability, inspection, and performance monitoring. Both marketizing and centralizing tendencies draw on languages and practices borrowed from business that relate to ideas of efficiency and productivity. Teachers’ work became highly regulated effectively in corroding the quality of their work and working lives.6

Now, in our daily life, we find officials in ministries of education who believe that all policy-making takes is to send a letter out to principals and local government officials. Mason told us that “Implementing policy change in highly centralized education systems is difficult enough.”7 Government officials stand behind a podium and say that a new process will be implemented starting immediately. It does not have to be this way. Policy-making can be a process of dialogue, listening, and input. Policy can result from a decision-making process full of layers of consultation, aware of the context of the various communities, and pointed at the shared aims of education. It can be something other than traditional notions of managerial, hierarchical, top-down pontification. It must be better.

Responsive educational leaders can propel systemic transformation by working to develop and impact policy. Principals, aware of the impact of education, and confident in their agency and ability to act, have the power to assist minorities demanding actions for the sake of the environment, the climate crisis, a fair society, and the status of democracy in the midst of an often unaware, ruling majority. But we need to change the public discourse in a very short time.

Among the different obstacles we see is the fragmentation of reality. Different groups see education differently, use different language and tools, and look for different kinds of solutions. This is one reason we have been looking at the problem of education from different perspectives in every chapter: from theoretical points of view, from practical perspectives of teachers and principals, and from the angle of policy. “In the sense intended by complexity theory, decentralized education systems are understood as complex because they are dynamic open systems constituted by incredible scale.”8 In order to prepare coherent approaches and create the effect of synergy, we need to integrate all those views and start cooperation across boundaries, we propose looking at the educational system from a bird’s eye view and thinking about policies that might be implemented to support the change we need.

In the past, we used to turn toward state institutions for help in times of crisis. Today, when the level of trust is extremely low, the task of those institutions is more difficult, but it does not mean that they are needed less.

Could school really help societies in overcoming global crises? Do they have the potential? Do they have the ability to reform themselves in order to change the world? One possible answer is “yes,” but it could just as easily be “no.” It depends on our willingness to think not only about school, but about society as well. We will not “fix” schools without “fixing” society.

What we see in some realities is different. It is difficult to understand the relationship between schools, processes, and outcomes of education, and on the other side society, if we do not understand the mechanisms ruling social interactions and life in school. To understand education, we need to understand its broad social context, political and economic systems, social stratification, institutionalized inequality, power games, levels of development, and dominant ideologies and trends. These relations are the results of a long-lasting contract between schools and societies: schools promise to deliver certain outcomes, while society promises the framework, resources, and trust that allow for the functioning of the school. But maybe this contract should be renegotiated, as school is not able to fulfill promises, while society lays down unachievable expectations made within toxic paradigms. We may, however, navigate new waters where education, instead of answering harmful demands, may start to play the role of the compass, proposing its own themes and direction, defining alternative tasks and the needed skills. In order to free education from narrow mental models, we should try to design policies which have a chance to support educationally responsive leaders.

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