Students protesting on the streets about climate change, demanding action here and now, and the responses they have provoked, have given a bracing shock to the education system, for so long stifled in the grip of neoliberalism. A grip that has reduced education to an exercise in management and technical practice, focused obsessively on performance in standardised tests, and has turned schools into businesses competing in an education market. Struggling briefly free, these young protesters remind us that education is a political practice, confronting us with political questions – most urgently, what is the purpose of education in the face of catastrophic climate change.

The right questions to ask

It’s a wake-up call. A left government must reclaim education as, first and foremost, a political practice. In the words of the great Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994), education is “always a political discourse whether we know it or not…[it] means working with political choices”. Political choices require us to ask political questions, which are, Chantal Mouffe says, “not mere technical issues to be solved by experts…[but questions that] always involve decisions which require us to make choices between conflicting alternatives”.

What sort of questions? A good place to start, echoing sociologist Karl Mannheim, is to ask, “what is the diagnosis of our time?” What are the major ills confronting our societies today? The calamitous state of the environment, democracy and social justice are obvious political choices for the left. On the other side of the coin, what do we want for our children, here and now and in the future? Other questions follow. What are the fundamental values and ethics of education? How do we understand ‘knowledge’, ‘learning’ and ‘education’? Not to forget that question of purpose and aims: What is education for?

For neoliberals, the answer, the political choice, to this last question is an education to produce flexible, compliant and competitive workers and acquisitive, self-interested and calculating consumers – ensuring supplies of ‘human capital’ and consumption, fuelling endless growth. For the left, the answer, the political choice, will be very different: education for flourishing lives and societies, sustainable and healthy environments, citizens (of all ages) imbued with democratic and cooperative values, accustomed to critical thinking and working with complexity and uncertainty, and committed to working for the public good. To protest, for example, against climate change and to contribute to creating a liveable world.

“What is your image of the child?”

Equally important are political questions about subjectivity or identity. These were central to Malaguzzi’s thinking and practice, and remain so today in the world-famous municipal school system of Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, which he did so much to create. The key question for Malaguzzi was “what is your image of the child?”, insisting that a “declaration [about the image of the child] is not only a necessary act of clarity and correctness, it is the necessary premise for any pedagogical theory, and any pedagogical project”. Or put another way, it is necessary to make a choice about who we think children are – for such images, our understandings, are productive of how we think, talk and act educationally.

His political choice was clear: “We say all children are rich, there are no poor children. All children whatever their culture, whatever their lives are rich, better equipped, more talented, stronger and more intelligent than we can suppose”. These rich children, he thought, were born protagonists, actively constructing knowledge and identity in relation with other children and adults. They were citizens with rights and with a “hundred languages”, referring (in the words of Vea Vecchi (the first atelierista, or ‘educator with an arts background’ in Reggio’s schools) “to the different ways children (human beings) represent, communicate and express their thinking…from the many visual languages that there are, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, through music and dance, to a wide range of scientific languages, reading and writing, and much else besides”.

But without awareness and care, this rich child can easily be impoverished – by society and education. As Malaguzzi argued in a famous poem, though:

children have a hundred languages: they rob them of ninety nine

school and culture

work to separate


making them think without their body

and act without their head

making conflict between

play and work

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

inside and outside

“What is your image of the child?” is not the only political question to ask about identity. Others include, what is your image of the teacher? Of the parent? And, last but not least, of the school?

Children as neoliberal “human capital”

Neoliberalism has, of course, asked itself political questions and made its own choices – but denies this process to the wider public. Its choices are presented as natural and unquestionable – as Margaret Thatcher was wont to say, “there is no alternative”, leaving only “technical issues to be solved by experts”. For neoliberals, the fundamental values of education are individualism, competition and choice. The purposes of education are fundamentally economic. And the image of the child? As future human capital. As Natasha Lennard argues in her review of the recent book by John Harris, ‘Kids these days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials’, such a conception “reduces people to no more than potential earners, with their value determined by their imagined future capacity to make money based on their current skillset and social position. It’s a way of reconfiguring young life into market terms”.

Faced by neoliberalism’s attempt to deny education as a political practice, the left must reclaim education as a subject for democratic politics. It must insist on the importance of political questions like “what is your image of the child?” It must be adamant there are alternatives, and it must argue for its political choices.

Drawing on the important tradition of progressive education and educationalists (such as John Dewey, Celestin Freinet, Alex Bloom, Loris Malaguzzi), what should be the left’s educational project and policies? In our book ‘Radical Education and the Common School: a democratic Alternative’, Michael Fielding and I offer one possibility: a public education based on democracy as a fundamental value and enacted in a common public school.

What is our image of this school? The common public school practicing democratic public education is for all citizens living in a local catchment area – children, young people and adults, a place for inter-generational learning and relations – without admission criteria except residence. In its comprehensiveness, it contests the fragmenting drive of neoliberal education, with its proliferation of competing and/or selective schools, including ‘academies’ and ‘free schools’, grammar schools and ‘faith schools’.

The common public school is age integrated, for example, taking young people from 6 to 16 years, or even from earlier ages, and human scale in size, either one small school (perhaps up to 300 students) or small schools-within-schools; unsettling transitions to new and larger schools are avoided and relationships and support across age groups fostered. It is organised around multi-disciplinary teams of educators with diverse perspectives and interests, capable of working with a wide range of the ‘hundred languages’; as an example, Swedish schools often take children from 6 to 16 years, are rarely larger than 4-500, and have multi-disciplinary teams – of pre-school teachers, school teachers and free-time pedagogues – working with mixed age groups of younger children.

Adopting a holistic approach, such schools provide education-in-its-broadest-sense, part of which is offering a wide range of extra-curricular activities, for the whole community. The possibilities are limitless, ranging from access to school sports and other facilities, through hosting or providing a wide range of services and adult education, to making the school a place for community organisation and action.

The common public school has structures that support democratic governance in particular and democratic practice more generally, for example General Meetings, elected governing bodies and non-tokenistic student councils. The school works in close relationship with the local community it serves; it participates in local or neighbourhood educational forums; and, rather than competing, it cooperates with other common schools within networks facilitated by renewed local authorities responsible once again for education in their area. Some common schools are provided as co-operatives or by other non-profit organisations, others by the local authority itself – municipal schools, since it is not possible for such bodies to be responsible for public education without being directly involved in its practice.

Rather than the neoliberal image of the school as business and ‘exam factory’, the image of the common public school is as a public space and public resource, a place of encounter for citizens of all ages where they participate together in projects of environmental, social, cultural, political and economic significance. This has much in common with Keri Facer’s image of a ‘physical, local school where community members are encouraged to encounter each other and learn from each other’, and which she sees as ‘one of the last public spaces in which we can begin to build the intergenerational solidarity, respect for diversity and democratic capability needed to ensure fairness in the context of sociotechnical change’.

Perhaps, if given more time and sustained support, New Labour’s ‘extended schools’ might have evolved in this direction; Doug Martin’s study of these schools suggests that some at least had the potential to become community-based common public schools. But that brief experiment was cut short by a new government focused on education-in-its-narrowest-sense and the school as business and ‘exam factory’. A future left government needs to reclaim education for democracy and the public, to make education relevant to the converging crises of our times, and to affirm an education that is emancipatory, enriching and exhilarating. It must assert, argue for and act on rich images of people and institutions. It must create a pedagogical project where protest against climate change and difficult choices for a sustainable future are embraced as an integral part of the work and life of the school.

This article forms part of openDemocracy’s “Left governmentality” mini-series.