Participatory Budgeting in Schools #2; Progressive Traditionalism?

At first glance, Participatory Budgeting would seem to fit snugly into the left-wing, child-empowering, progressive fold. At second glance, you might say that it sits equally well with the competition-driven Dragon’s Den of standard neo-liberal Enterprise Education.  But, like Katharine Birbalsingh, Participatory Budgeting defies categorisation and, as such, could open a liminal space for a helpful conversation between between “trads” and “progs.”

[7 mins to read]

The conversation on 27th March on the viability of a Participatory Budgeting programme in schools will not take place in a vacuum. Not only do most schools and colleges face severe shortages of money, time and energy. But of equal importance is the historic context of traditional vs. progressive education. This second piece in the series sheds some light on the relevance of that context and explores its practical implications.

A tale of two schools

A satirical summary of the traditional-progressive split goes like this: Traditionalists believe education is about putting something into the child (the “filling of a pail”) and are supposedly all aligned with the political right, order and (white) elitism. Progressives believe education is about bringing something out of the child (the “lighting of a fire”) and are supposedly all aligned with the political left, subversion and equality. (More details and examples in Participatory Budgeting in Schools? #1).

However, this split is not as black-and-white as it would seem. A colourful case in point is Katharine Birbalsingh, of Guyanese- Jamaican heritage, who runs England’s “strictest school” in one of London’s challenged areas after publicly denouncing the state of the education system at the – hold on – Conservative Party conference in 2010. This has led her to be attacked as an elitist racial and ideological traitor by her detractors – even though half the students at her school are eligible for pupil premium funding, almost half speak English as a second language and yet achieve smashing results. You will not be surprised that the curriculum at her school is fully of knowledge-based. Nevertheless, in her Rubin Report interview, she says the objective of teaching knowledge is to make “critical thinking” possible (30m30s).

This summary does not do her journey justice but I think it is fair to say that Katharine Birbalsingh messes up the neat lines in the sand and that she, like me, does not feel she can relate to recognised labels. And though I may disagree with her on a range of issues – though perhaps not those the reader might expect – I strongly believe she is an good example of where the education debate needs to go: Beyond the binary.

Ms Snuffy on twitter
Confused? Don’t be, it’s the 21st century.

Looking through both eyes

The progressive-traditional dichotomy is immediately relevant to any Participatory Budgeting programme in schools. In practice, progressives advocate unguided or minimally guided learning, generally defined as one in which students must discover and/or construct essential information for themselves, as opposed to receiving direct instruction from the teacher.

To the Traditionalist, a nightmare Participatory Budgeting programme looks like this: The teachers say: “Alright, kids, come back in three days with some amazing proposals for spending £20,000.” After three days, most groups will come up with nothing, a few groups will come up with something grotesquely superficial, and the bad boys will demand funding for a computer suite with networked Grand Theft Auto (An 18+ game that involves drug-trafficking and sex with prostitutes). And that’s before we even get to the vote-for-the-biggest-bully’s-proposal stage.

As the representative and champion of the education sector in my partnership with Shared Future, it is my responsibility to prevent that from happening. Any school that has ever worked with me will know why.

“What no-one seemed to consider was that the necessary prerequisite for thinking out of the box would be the existence of a box in the first place.”

Jakob Werdelin, Facts vs. Free Thinking? A CL perspective, 2013

In preparation for the workshop on the 27th, we will be examining each stage of the Participatory Budgeting process through both eyes to look at teacher control and assessment, balance of skills and knowledge in the curriculum, achieving focus, embedding numeracy and literacy and, finally, oracy, the lost elixir of education.  Get notifications of related posts on Twitter or join the mailing list for updates.

Recap: The participatory budgeting process boils down to three steps. 1) A pot of money is allocated for PB. 2) Learners put forward their own ideas for how the money should be spent, and 3) A vote takes place.

First step: Defining the scope

Wide scopes with fuzzy edges in any learning situation tend to complicate the connection to the curriculum, the planning, the scaffolding and the assessment. An obvious way to increase focus of Participatory Budgeting is therefore to limit the compass of proposals to match specific learning targets. As with Cooperative Learning, the compression of energy into a limited space is what drives the learning forward, not letting it go all over the place (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1 From Cooperative Learning; Closed Questions, Closed Achievement Gaps, 2017. (In case you are wondering, the figure with the arrow in his behind is the teacher).

Not unrealistically, let us say the school in this thought experiment has virtually no money and wants to focus on maths and science, which are meaningful starting points when defining the boundaries of a Participatory Budgeting project. As for subject content, an obvious first step would be to look at the specific areas that have recently been taught in science and maths: In this case, energy and it relation to sustainability and environment in science and data analysis in maths.


Bonus PB Life Lesson #1: In the real world, funding streams affect the focus of everything from university research to start-ups. This is vital to understand because it’s one of the areas where the current “one-day enterprise challenge” does not reflect the many restrictions faced by real-life entrepreneurs. (I am grateful to Catherine Brentnall @areyoureadyteam for her input on this).


In parallel, there is the money issue. In the previous article we suggested a number of funding streams, but in this example we will keep it simple by using money already available and allocated in the school budget for regular maintenance and improvement of buildings. So, most secondary schools can honestly say to its pupils they will be bidding to spend a five digit amount. Given that 9 children in a class of 30 live in poverty, that’s not a small sum in most people’s book. However, the caveat is that proposals would actually have to save the school money over time.

Also, “scope” would have to factor in the time element and the range of learners and staff involved. Who takes part? How long do students have to complete their proposals? How does Participatory Budgeting (not) fit with timetabling? We will leave these things for the workshop itself.

Interlude: Bournville Junior School

Here is a reflection on student-centred versus teacher-centred learning: Up to this point, the above example has not involved pupils in any part of the decision-making whatsoever and is very specifically geared to embedding, assessing and expanding pupils’ subject knowledge about energy and their ability to apply this knowledge in practice. So, how does this fit in with child-centred self-directed, constructivist learning?

As far as I can tell, the best answer is “as it suits your specific circumstance.” Case in point: Under the headship of Ms Sue Barratt, Bournville Junior School, less than 6 miles from where we will host the workshop, has “revolutionised how one school delivers the national curriculum.” The caption of the 2008 Guardian article reads “Under new plans, pupils will influence everything from teaching style to toilet size.” It can’t get much more progressive than that.

Nevertheless, just like Ms Birbalsingh’s, strict and teacher-centred Michaela Community School, Bournville Junior School is rated as outstanding by Ofsted. The point I am making is that a school with Bournville’s ethos would likely have pupils decide on the focus and scope of the Participatory Budgeting project. And, in their context, it would work really well.

Understanding and accommodating vastly different schools is therefore a central objective when we discuss a Participatory Budgeting programme to schools on 29 March. in Birmingham. So, if theses ideas have struck a chord with you, join us on the 27th March in Birmingham.

The next article will explore the next step of how proposals could be generated. Among other things, we will look at Project-Based Learning and how the proud traditions of the Trivium connect.

Further reading

External links


Empowering KS2-5 learners through Participatory Budgeting

  • DateMon, 20 May 2019 10:00 – 14:30 BST
  • CostFree.

Participatory Budgeting mosaic

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One thought on “Participatory Budgeting in Schools #2; Progressive Traditionalism?

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    This really interesting article is great I am sorry I don’t have more time. However I know that I talk for many primary school teachers when I say budgeting needs to be given close attention

    Liked by 1 person

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