“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ” Paulo Freire
I used to volunteer extensively with the Parent Council at my daughter’s primary school. It was an interesting time to be involved: the City of Edinburgh Council was pioneering a formal structure in which it communicated directly with parents about education. It had set up a Council subcommittee called the Consultative Committee with Parents (CCwP) which holds meetings every two months at the city chambers. At the same time, a local parent set up an online networking forum for all chairs or other reps in the many Parent Councils around the city. It was very successful and provided a valuable tool for sharing information and organising campaigns on particular issues. This was all around the same time that the Scottish Government was promoting “Parents as Partners” – in other words, the CCwP was part of a wider trend and national agenda.
I’m not going to knock any of these developments: they were and are positive steps which acknowledge that parents and carers play a vital part in a child’s education experience. What I want to tease out of my example are the limitations of the formal structures.
First, the CCwP took place within the context of a typical Council meeting, on a weekday evening at the city chambers, generally with the formal apparatus of a top table, PowerPoint presentations, and a formal meeting agenda with minutes and other papers. There are many, many people out there who are allergic to this type of format. Indeed, some of the parents who attended were visibly uncomfortable and intimidated by the officiousness and formality. The fact that it was on a weekday evening meant that those parents who couldn’t arrange childcare over teatime, homework time, and bedtime were excluded from the meetings. In other words, there were barriers to participation.
Second, consultation is not the same as partnership. In some instances, ‘consultation’ meant ‘tell us what you think about what we’re already going to do, whether you like it or not.’
Again, these are just the normal and expected aspects of political business. The CCwP was a fairly new instrument, and it takes time for such things to grow and meet their potential. But what I wanted to draw out was the aspect of power dynamics that limited genuine participation. On the face of it, parents were being given a seat at the table, and the Council could quite comfortably say they were working in partnership with parents. In reality, the fact that the seat had been given and the terms of its use had been dictated by the Council, meant that parents weren’t equal partners; in some cases it was simply a rhetorical gesture that concealed the actual decision-making process.
This leads me back to Freire, who examined how power dynamics disrupt true learning and participation. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he writes
The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a “circle of certainty” within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled….This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.
What if human civilisation is essentially a fight between the powerful and the powerless? We can only choose to act in the moment and within our own small sphere of influence, with whatever challenges we encounter on our life’s journey – but these do count, they do matter. You can’t be neutral on a moving train.