Participatory Budgeting in Schools #10: Q&A with Sean Harford Pt.1

A big thank you to the National Director for taking the time to see me yesterday at Ofsted’s Birmingham HQ, where he helped formulate the two key challenges to a Participatory Budgeting programme in schools. This is the answer to his first question on the puzzle of mapping PB to the curriculum.

[4 minutes to read]

I generally receive rather binary responses when presenting teachers and leaders with Participatory Budgeting (PB) as an infinitely scalable and replicable hands-on approach to simultaneously embed knowledge and skills, motivate passive learners, actively promote fundamental British values, facilitate oracy, literacy, character education and enterprise education, engage parents and foster tangible community cohesion. One is “Great!” and the other is “Snake-oil!”

While the latter ignores the research and case studies documenting the effectiveness of social action in education (including Ofsted’s own), both reactions are in fact equally unhelpful in terms of a nuanced, critical discussion needed for Shared Future and I to pre-plug gaps in our abecedarian PB programme.

It is Sean’s unique contribution to balance interest with critical distance and I could write an entire research paper on my thoughts on the different dynamics of extracting information from a single hyper-specialist like Sean as opposed to the myriad of interlocking narratives at the Co-Creative workshop in Birmingham that formally launched the project in May.

Reminder: In its simplest form, Participatory Budgeting (PB) enables a group of stakeholders (e.g. in a school community) to decide on the issues that matter to them. A pot of money is allocated for PB, stakeholders put forward their own ideas for how the money should be spent, and vote on them. See Participatory Budgeting in Schools? #1; The Stakes and the Stakeholders

Though Sean confirmed that there are no fundamental discords between PB and the new inspection framework, he helped me pinpoint two crucial questions to which schools will require a satisfactory answer before engaging.

Question #1

Will it be a big challenge to map the curriculum to Participatory Budgeting projects, with its many moving parts?

Question #2

Will investing time and resources in Participatory Budgeting give adequate return-on-investment in terms of learning outcomes?

Reply to Question #1

Will it be a big challenge to map the curriculum to Participatory Budgeting projects, with its many moving parts?

With schools focusing on curriculum and subject teaching, direct instruction from the front would seem to allow much more detailed planning of how and in which order knowledge is acquired by learners.

However, the question springs from a misapprehension of just how Participatory Budgeting relates to curriculum by erroneously assuming that the PB process requires interlacing with subject teaching to succeed. It does not – and there is good reason to keep the two separate:

Consider a scenario where you have to map curriculum teaching to a PB project to invest £500 to raise awareness in the local community about the Windrush generation. You might have four workgroups fleshing out ideas, meaning that each group respectively might require you to teach about e.g. 1. Colonisation and racism as concepts; 2. The history of the fall of the British Empire; 3. The economy of post-war Britain; 4. Specific personal experiences of the first and second generation of immigrants.

Given that you would not know in detail when which specific subject matter would be required, you can see how the neat granular planning on the left of a spirally progressing curriculum with sustained retrieval over time might suddenly look a bit more challenging:

click image to enlarge

While the option on the right might be considered by those already successfully operating a very student-centred ethos, this approach is not appropriate for the majority of UK schools.

Adversely, there are several benefits of keeping subject teaching and PB process separate. One that Sean specifically identified was to think of PB in terms of motivation. For example, at the start of the term, your message to students is: “The point of teaching you this maths and science is that in six weeks, we will entrust you with £XX,XXX to refurbish the buildings to save our school at least £XXX per year in heating over the next 10 years.”

Do not mix. In this scenario, Participatory Budgeting is at once the pinnacle and acid-test of any selected subject learning cycle, providing both context and a teleological narrative.

Because the PB process actively requires each and every student* to apply British values and operationalises the slightly airy elements of “Personalised development” listed on page 11 in the education inspection framework, it demonstrates to each individual that personal integrity and values are not, in fact, airy, but lead to very practical successes or failures in the same way that specific academic skills do:



The answer to the first question is No. It is not a big challenge to map the curriculum to Participatory Budgeting projects, because you don’t. You teach the subject content needed to successfully execute the specific Participatory Budgeting project you have picked to match your intent. In that sense, Participatory Budgeting is akin to Cooperative Learning. You don’t do things for it. It does things for you.

On that note, the second question, will investing time and resources in Participatory Budgeting give adequate return-on-investment in terms of learning outcomes? actually masks the real question:

“Wouldn’t students learn more if we just spent the last two weeks of term hammering in more subject teaching, instead of this PB-nonsense?”

This is best answered with a counter-question: “What is your intent with the curriculum?” I’ll leave readers to mull on that question, as I need to get on with my VNET conference slides. (But here is a hint: Have a look in your copy of the Inspection Framework…)

On a closing note: This brief post does in no way do the conversation justice; I am grateful for a range of other suggestions from Sean, including specific school leaders to approach.

Further reading


werdelin.co.uk is the business end of cooperativelearning.works.


* when organised through Cooperative Learning, see Venn Diagram.

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