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Why education and democracy is as relevant today as it has always been - Robin Webber-Jones

18 January 2024

Robin Webber-Jones, principal (Northants), the Bedford College Group

“I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – attributed to Voltaire.

In his book Good Education In An Age Of Measurement, Gert Biesta explores, among other things, the impact of national league tables on the choices politicians make in relation to education. He describes a situation where current discourses place most emphasis on education leading to the achievement of qualifications and he points out that good education has a number of other attributes, including creating good citizens who can challenge given solutions and come up with new solutions to problems. Few of us working in further education would disagree with this.

The work of employers, their representative groups, LSIPs and many others stress the need for us to ensure individuals have “human” skills (for example, collaborating, evaluating, exploring, interpreting information, and being resilient). Most of us recognise the challenge of creating a curriculum (for those on study programmes, apprenticeships, re-training or any other type of learning on any type of funding stream we end up engaging with), a fact first articulated by Stenhouse in his seminal 1974 book - and most of us recognise the impact that stretched funding has on achieving this.

While the current Education Inspection Framework operated by Ofsted does take a view that the impact of our work should stretch beyond achieving qualifications, there is not a national framework for us to consider long term “impact” beyond employability and further learning. Indeed, if we return to Dewey’s work on democracy in education, a huge work that has messages for us all (on how we can problem find, problem solve and critique work (to quote Stenhouse)), we are reminded that “education is not preparation for life, it is life itself”. Therefore, how we measure the long-term impact of the work we do should be central.

However, in most professions, this long-term thinking is not present. This has led me to reflect on political discourses more generally and how we might start to ensure there is a coherent curriculum for democratic education because all sectors need people who can challenge assumptions and take a long-term view.

I think that the first relational question here is: why does engaging people in understanding that democracy is important matter? Firstly, society in the UK feels it is becoming increasingly polarised. Since the start of the Brexit referendum there have been oppositional forces painting complex arguments in very simplistic ways. I do not think it matters which side of the argument an individual falls on, but it is important that debates are complete and representative. Secondly, there is the role that “character” plays. As Sennett said in the Craftsman - “the single most pressing earthly obligation of every medieval artisan was the establishment of a good personal reputation”.

While Further Education no longer trains medieval artisans, it does train the modern equivalent, developing experts to follow a chosen vocation. This means that we should be concerned with how we encourage people to make effective decisions and think about their impact on the world. This cannot be measured by short “impact” measures, or by single grades or individual learning outcomes in qualifications. It can only be developed through evaluation, establishing good learning routines, and developing thinking faculties.

To illustrate this, if we take the two great international crises of the past two decades, the financial crash, and Covid-19 pandemic, there could not have been more contrasting ways the leadership of government dealt with such complex situations. This is not a personal party-political point. Richards and other commentators have made the same point. On the one hand, there was a clear attempt to research, to bring people together to try to resolve the problem and a fear of what might happen if the full agency of the state was not used. On the other hand, the current enquiry reveals how confusing things were. It has also revealed what happens when those who do not have a democratic mandate also have power. Thinking about how we can use these as learning points for students, regardless of what technical, professional or academic route they are pursuing seems to be a worthwhile pursuit in order to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.

Therefore, in an increasingly polarised society, there need to be a ways to develop understanding and reflection and for students to be able to consider this in the context of developing and forming their own lives. Aristotle, Dunne, and a range of other philosophers concerned with education and developing wisdom, acknowledge the time and care needed to do this. With a general election on the horizon, along with the recent Westminster by-elections and the countless local government by-elections that happen each week, there is an opportunity for the sector and individuals to change the narrative to one that earnestly attempts to ensure that offering learning opportunities on democratic processes and institutions is properly funded, and that people feel empowered to use that learning to engage in mature conversation.

This is of crucial importance to the FE sector as we train those who will work in a range of public services, from the NHS to planning, from culture to transport, and those who engage in developing communities now and in the future - engineers, construction workers and farmers to name but a few. To a large extent we want a plurality of voices, and long- term thinking to emerge so that policy making has tractability. As we develop experts, we need to focus on how they think about solutions, how they exercise their voices in doing so, and how they can refine those ideas, regardless of what those ideas are. This needs appropriate funding and time. Education in the round cannot be done well by cutting corners or by providing scant resources or on reaching simplistic judgements. The subject matter is complicated.

We have seen the horrors currently taking place in the world where democracy is absent – the Russia / Ukraine Conflict, in Gaza, in Lebanon and in countless other areas. The stakes locally, nationally, and internationally are very high if people feel disenfranchised. Colleges can and should play a key role in facilitating their communities to engage in democracy. After all the link between democracy and education is significant.


Biesta, G. 2010. Good education in an age of measurement. London: Paradigm Publishers.

Dewey, J. 1916. Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.

Richards, S. 2017. The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost its Way. London. Atlantic Books.

Sennett, R. 2003. Respect: The formation of character in an age of inequality. London: Penguin.

Sennett, R. 2012. The Craftsman. London: Penguin.

Stenhouse, L. 1975. An introduction to curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.