In earlier times, the education of Canadian children was sometimes compared to a three-legged stool, one leg representing the family, another the church, the third the government.
Over time, the first two legs have come to bear less weight. The education of our children has come to rest to an ever-greater extent on the government and its agencies. We are told this is good because the government has the expertise, knowledge, and money to design and deliver the best quality education for all.
But there is a different, more modern, understanding that once again sees education resting on three legs – or, more accurately, the powerful principles of freedom, autonomy and accountability.
The principle of freedom is the freedom of parents and, when old enough, students, to select a school of their choice. Parents have a fundamental human right, recognized in international law, to guide the development of their children and choose the education they receive.
In everyday, practical terms this means a school they trust, a school in which they have confidence. For many parents, this will mean a school that shares their views about what is important.
To deny this choice by insisting that all parents must send their children to the local public school that is essentially the same as all the other public schools is unworthy of a free and democratic society.
The autonomy principle refers to another kind of freedom, the freedom of education professionals to use their expertise to create schools that appeal to parents, children and young adults. These schools provide well-crafted, satisfying and challenging learning experiences based on professional knowledge, and listening to students and parents.
Different students thrive in different schools. The days when all schools could rely on a single instructional recipe for delivering the best education to every child are long past. Autonomous schools have clearly-focused missions shared by staff, parents and their governing body. Teachers are far more likely to find professional satisfaction and mutual respect working in schools where they share a common understanding with their colleagues.
Finally, all schools need to be accountable not just to parents and pupils, but to society at large.
Today’s students will become tomorrow’s citizens, parents, workers and leaders. We all have a strong stake in ensuring they are well prepared for those roles by making certain schools are founded on and serve a shared understanding of what it takes to make and protect a free society.
To this end, schools need to be held accountable to basic, common standards concerning acceptable knowledge, values, practices and behaviours. Society must also ensure the young are protected from neglectful or abusive parents or educators.
To be properly accountable, schools need to be properly transparent. Parents need to know what their children are being taught, why and how. Parents, pupils, teachers and the public also need to know what is being learned, and that requires the regular use of fair, valid and comparable tests. Those paying the bills, especially the tax bills, also need to know how much money is being spent and on what.
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Some provinces and countries have taken steps to modernize their schools by strengthening the three modern principles of freedom, autonomy and accountability. As parents and students prepare to face another year of monopolistic state schooling in other jurisdictions, they would do well to consider how freedom, autonomy and accountability could be strengthened in their schools.
Given the financial difficulties facing governments, the general impotence of school boards and the dominating power of teacher unions, they should give priority to accountability.
Derek J. Allison is professor emeritus, Western University, Ontario. He writes on education and social issues.