The number of responses to consultations tends to be low. For example, the Royal Society in England has received 125 responses to its consultation on computing in schools. Admittedly this is a niche area, but it still seems pretty low to me, given the fact that there are over 17,000 primary schools in England and, especially, over 3,000 secondary schools which, one would assume, have a vested interest. I believe that the number of responses to Government consultations is higher, but still relatively small.
I think people are mistaken not to have their say in this type of situation, even though I can understand why they might not wish to do so. The cynical among us might wonder if, perhaps, the decisions on which we’re invited to consult haven’t already been taken, rendering the whole thing a pointless – and time-consuming – exercise. But you can never know this for sure, so I think it’s as well to give “them” the benefit of the doubt, for the following reasons.
I think it would be a brave organisation that decided to ignore the submissions of thousands of people – especially if many of them are saying similar things. Even if they don’t all agree with each other, the number of responses gives a quick indication of how important people judge the issue to be.
It’s also crucial, for this reason, for people to respond individually as well as, or instead of, collectively. For example, I could have organised a Computers in Classrooms response to the National Curriculum Consultation . Thousands of people subscribe to that newsletter – but a collective submission would have counted as only one response. It was the same in my local area recently when there was a campaign to prevent the closure of libraries. We were advised that collecting names on a petition would be a waste of time, because the petition would count as only one response. Whether that was actually true or not, the point remains the same: a response of 1,000 submissions looks more impressive than a response of 100 or fewer.
Someone might listen
Even in a worst case scenario where the decision has already been taken, you never know if your submission will cause there to be a rethink. On a couple of occasions I have secured a job offer, beating the internal candidate whom, apparently, had already been unofficially selected. Admittedly, there have also been a couple of occasions where it became readily apparent that I, along with a few others, were there simply to make up the numbers and satisfy the legal requirements of the candidate selection process. Nevertheless, you can’t know that in advance, and the same applies to consultations. As Woody Allen once said:
80% of success is showing up.
In any case, even if the main decision isn’t changed, your response may cause them to think, “Hey, we didn’t think of that!”, and add a caveat or a change or an extra clause to the final report.
Exercise your rights
I happen to think that if we have a right of being consulted, we should exercise it. That’s partly a moral position – there are plenty of countries where people are not consulted, so we should value what we have – but also a pragmatic one. How long will it be before someone suggests, as a cost-cutting exercise, that we abandon such consultations on the grounds that the number of responses doesn’t justify the expense of facilitating the process? This could be a case of “use it or lose it”.
Thinking is good for you
Going through such consultations makes you sit down and think about the topic in a focused way.The questions are usually quite specific, so you have to give them your full attention. I think about curriculum and pedagogical issues a lot, but like many people I do so whilst doing other things at the same time. I think there’s a lot to be said for setting aside an hour or two to concentrate on just one thing. Also, framing your responses is a good way in itself to clarify the issues in your own mind.
Collaboration is good for you
Getting together with colleagues to discuss the issues can be extremely valuable, and is a good form of professional development. Giving over part of a training day or departmental meeting to such an exercise always pays dividends. Apart from anything else, it’s more enjoyable than discussing, yet again, how to increase the number of students gaining an A* to C grade!
I hope I’ve convinced you to respond to consultations. If so, and you haven’t already contributed to the National Review Consultation, which includes a section about the place of ICT in the National Curriculum, then do so now: you have until 14th April 2011 to respond. Although I haven’t seen a time limit, it’s sometimes noon, and never later than 5pm. I’d aim to get it in by 10 am at the latest, just in case something goes wrong – at least at that time there will be someone at the end of the phone to help sort it out!