Participatory Budgeting in Schools #11: Q&A with Sean Harford Pt.2

In paraphrase, Sean Harford’s second question is: “Wouldn’t students learn more if we just spent the last week of term hammering in more subject teaching, instead of this Participatory-nonsense?” The answer is found in the framework.

[4 minutes to read]

Last week, Ofsted’s National Director kindly helped pin down what he foresees as the two main challenges to Participatory Budgeting in schools. For the context of that meeting and my response to Sean Harford’s first question, please see the previous article.

Asked and answered:

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


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

Before proceeding, it is important to reiterate that Ofsted has no issue with the basic concept of PB in schools, if the programme is done well. As Cooperative Learning has fully demonstrated its capacity with much more complex ventures (See video presentation on the Gender gap SSIF), that leaves only the big picture to be discussed.

But that it a big picture, indeed: As Katharina Birbalsingh often notes in the seemingly undying debate on Stormzy vs Mozart, if you put something into your curriculum, you will have to take something out. Hence, Sean’s question #2:

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

See those two golden buckles of Participatory Budgeting on your (carefully planned) spiral belt of inculcating curriculum content? You could have had more of the same where they sit.

But should you?

Reply to Question #2

As pointed out above, the real question hidden here is: “Wouldn’t students learn more if we just spent the last week of term hammering in more subject teaching, instead of this Participatory nonsense?”

The answer is found in the Framework’s comments on implementation and intent, which clarify that all your meticulously planned subject teaching is specifically “sequenced towards sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment” (p. 10) and “give all learners, (…) the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life” (p. 9).

Let us remind ourselves that simply accumulating information, however rich, is a foundation for, and a means to, lived application. Small c conservative social justice warriors, especially, risk unintentionally giving their opponents the impression that they believe the mere memorising of poems and mastering complex arithmetic will open doors. They don’t and it doesn’t.

A Participatory Budgeting project which requires specific subject content (i.e. curriculum) to be effectively applied will provide context and narrative (and dare we say actionable schemata?) to the entire endeavour of the knowledge-rich curriculum. In the previous article, we explained how placing a PB project at the end of term would function as a acid test of the subject comprehension. And a more realistic one than SATs or GCSEs, as any acquisition of discrete knowledge is rather useless if  … well, the learner cannot use it.

Giving the final words to the Framework: “… teachers and leaders use assessment well, for example to help learners embed and use knowledge fluently” (Page 10). The impact is that they not only pass their tests, but “…are ready for the next stage of education, employment or training.”

But, our school does that already…

The counter-argument is, of course, that in your particular school, subject teaching will train application as the knowledge is embedded. But, take an honest look at the scope, breadth and depth of Participatory Budgeting weighed against the constraints of compartmentalised lesson-by-lesson teaching. If one was to even dare a comparison, it would be a wooden shovel against a 30-tonne hydraulic excavator.

Here, I remind the reader again that I am in no way suggesting PB should replace regular teaching, on the contrary, in fact, the two should be kept strictly separated for several reasons previously outlined. My point is that not many workplaces today operate like a discrete series of I say-you say lessons. Schools should not arrogantly brush of the fact that business and tertiary are openly stating school leavers are simply not prepared for life in the real world.

But there is, in fact, no comparison between a shovel and an excavator. A shovel teaches the concept of digging to a small child and trains their rudimentary skills. But, if the intent is to create functional adults, you will, at intervals, need to help students test their mettle on heavy – and, yes, potentially dangerous – machinery. Here, you will not find a more powerful approach than participatory budgeting.

And that concludes our response to Sean Harford’s second concern about PB in relation to the new framework.

To understand the real stakes of Participatory Budgeting, start here.

Which three skills does business want school leavers to have?

  • The ability to work collaboratively, both as a contributor and in help others contribute
  • Ease and flexibility with being in service sometimes and in the lead at others
  • Discernment, the confidence to challenge and check understanding, not just doing what you think people have asked of you.

Response from Victoria Ward, Director of Victoria Ward Ltd, whose portfolio includes WHO, HMRC, Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development.

Next: Why you cannot compare a shovel to an excavator

…The rigorous application of skills to calculate the cost of one-time installation of  various types of insulation vs. the depreciation of given brands of solar panels would require direct contact with specialists from business and  STEM department at the local university, who actually have a dedicated budget to help schools…

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Further reading is the business end of

* when organised through Cooperative Learning, see Venn Diagram.

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