Putting Power in the Hands of Individuals and Communities…

We agreed that…our government’s purpose is to make two major shifts in our political and national life:

The first is a radical redistribution of power from government to communities and people, to reverse decades of over-centralisation. Almost all our plans involve giving individuals, families and communities more control over their lives – whether that’s through opening new schools, giving locally elected councillors a say over local NHS services or holding local police to account.

Clegg and Cameron’s Letter to MPs of the Coalition Government

At first glance this is a gift for those of us who have advocated the potential of individuals and communities to shape their own destiny.  But I think it shows a lack of understanding about how such processes can work.

Communities and individuals are being offered power to do the work that some aspect of the state had previously done.  They are being pointed at opportunities identified by the powerful where they maybe allowed to play a part.   In the examples cited above to manage schools, health and policing.  Perhaps also to buy the local pub and turn it into a social enterprise or cooperative.  Or to take over an old school or library and turn it into a community asset.

All very laudable at first glance.

But there is no real shift  of power going on here.  Individuals and communities are being invited to play a larger part in delivering the strategies of the powerful.  There seems to be little or no sign of individuals and communities being allowed to set their own development agendas, to build their power to tackle the issues that really impact on their lives.   There is little evidence of real self-determination being encouraged, just more gentle manipulation to ‘good folk’ to do their bit in times of austerity.

And much of this will play well to middle Britain and its obsessions with schooling, policing and the delivery of healthcare.

But how will it play out in some of our poorest communities?  What will the impact of this ‘radical redistribution of power’ be on them?

My best guess is that for many the impact will be detrimental, unless we find a way to really engage them as individuals and communities in working on their agenda rather than on the agenda of the state.  Doing things that will make a real difference in their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

When we tell people how we wish them to participate in transforming their own worlds we can be sure that either:

  • we are not really sincere in our wishes for any such transformation, or
  • while we do wish for a radical transformation we do not understand the processes through which it might be achieved.

Perhaps it is time for Cameron and Clegg to read a little more Paulo Friere to go with their Philip Blond?

There is the world of difference between ‘putting power in the hands of individuals and communities’ and helping people to develop their power to shape their lives.


  1. johnpopham says:

    Correct, as usual, Mike

    That’s why we all need to roll our sleeves up and get involved in this to make sure these issues are taken account of

  2. Yup, yup and yup

  3. Norman Perrin says:

    In our tiny corner of “The Big Society” …. we parents of children with cerebral palsy, mainly in Sheffield, “rolled up our sleeves” as John Popham puts it and set out to pursue our own vision of how our children should be educated. Paces Campus and School, a near unique model, has now been running for some 13 years. Most of that time has been spent in an environment inhospitable to what were trying to achieve – for instance, almost every parent who wanted their child to attend Paces School has been confronted with a battle with ‘the system’.

    Yesterday, we submitted to DfE our expression of interest to become a Free School – one of the first non-maintained special schools to do so.

    Maybe “There is little evidence of real self-determination being encouraged, just more gentle manipulation to ‘good folk’ to do their bit in times of austerity” – and maybe not.

    Free Schools – encouraging parents to set up schools (and yes, I know all the downside) – is an offer of real self-determination. When I worked in Kenya in the 1970s, I became familiar with “Harambee Schools” – community ‘self-help’ schools and I had the great good fortune to work for an inspirational Kenyan Headteacher who had pursued the Harambee vision for his own community.

    The Free Schools agenda opens for us at Paces the space in which to work out our own aspirations and pursue our own ambitions. Government really need do no more.

    Tony Blair, by the way, made a speech in late 2005, which opened the way for Michael Gove. It just might be that this is the most radical transformation of education in the UK for a generation and more. We always need to distinguish clearly between ‘threats’ and ‘opportunities’. Cuts (‘times of austerity’) are a threat; the Big Society is maybe an opportunity. But not if we do not grasp it.

  4. johnpopham says:

    I am in constant awe of what you have achieved at Paces, Norman.

    I will watch your progress with great interest. I know lots of people hate the Free Schools policy, and I know it will largely result in middle class parents exercising their power to take their kids out of schools they don’t like. BUT, it may also offer the opportunity for people who want to do progressive stuff in education to get things off the ground.

    This may be a naive view, but, if anyone can make it work, you can, Norman.

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