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Engaging families and communities in curriculum debates

April 6th, 2009

In the last few years, in New Zealand and overseas, there has been a lot of discussion about how—if at all—public services (like education and health) should be provided in the 21st century. The 20th century model is, for a variety of theoretical and practical reasons, under pressure, and looking increasingly creaky. Ideas about what we want from our public services are changing, and we have the knowledge and/or technologies to provide better services to more people than was the case in the past. At the same time, however, there is a strong critique of universal, ‘one-size-fits-all’ systems, and concerns about affordability, accountability and so on.  We need new ways of thinking about our public services; a new public ‘settlement’ on how we as a community (everybody, that is) think they should work.

There’s now quite a large literature in this area (for a summary, see Parker & O’Leary, 2006). Drawing on more ‘deliberative’ conceptions of democracy, some analysts are arguing for more ‘joined-up’ forms of government, and for different, more dialogic relationships between the providers of public services and their clients/stakeholders.

In education’s case, this would mean different relationships between the Ministry of Education/schools and students/parents/the wider taxpaying community, in a context in which the basic ‘service’ is the curriculum.

This work is acknowledged in New Zealand’s most recent national curriculum document.  The New Zealand Curriculum sets out some ‘bottom line’ objectives to be achieved by all (arrived at via a wide consultation process), while at the same time allowing individual schools a great deal of freedom to interpret these for local needs. Schools are, however, required to consult with their local communities on how this should be done.  This could mean that schools just call meetings to explain to parents what they are doing and why they doing it (to inform them and get ‘buy-in’ so they will support their son/daughter’s learning in appropriate ways). Or, it could mean that schools ask parents and students what they think, that they collect these views, and take them into account in their planning. While these would be good things to do, it doesn’t seem very likely that either of these approaches will produce the deeper changes that are needed if we are to re-invent our schools for the 21st century.

Something new and different is needed.  What could this look like?  How might it differ from current ‘home-school partnership’ models?  To what extent are current school-home interactions really ‘partnerships’? Can these relationships be ‘partnerships’?  If so, what would the partners need to do—or think—differently to make this work?  And so on…

A group of us at NZCER have been thinking about these questions (and others) for a while now.  We’ve just started working with a small group of schools that are thinking about how they want to approach their ‘community consultation’ process.  We’re interested in hearing from schools and/or anyone else thinking about these issues, and in having a conversation about some of the ideas involved.
• How do these ideas link with—and support—other ideas about 21st century learning (e.g. some of the other ideas explored on this site).
• How might they work against them.
• What are some of the pitfalls of ‘community consultation’ processes?
• What do—or could—partnerships look like in this area?
• What really matters in this kind of situation?
What do you think?

Reference
Parker, S. & O’Leary, D. (2006). Re-imagining government: Putting people at the heart of New Zealand’s public sector. (Available at www.demos.co.uk).

Community engagement