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For a Reflexive Governance of Education: the example of Home Education in Quebec

By Christine Brabant(1)

University of Sherbrooke (QC, Canada)

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Ghent, 19-21 September 2007


The author examines the case of Home Education in Quebec as an example of new challenges that coordination of education faces today. The theoretical framework used for this analysis is the "reflexive governance" and the "pragmatique contextuelle" (pragmatic and contextualised approach) developed by Belgian philosophers Jacques Lenoble, Marc Maesschalck and their colleagues. It is argued that the propositions drawn from these new ethics of governance can help solving educational problems related to the participation of different actors, such as the elaboration of norms with regards to Home Education.


"It takes a village to raise a child"(2) is a commonly accepted saying. It suggests cooperation between villagers, even interdependence between them, for the child’s education. But it leaves unclear many parameters with regards to this "interdependence". Who makes the decisions? Who coordinates the tasks? Where and with whom does the child spend most of his days? And does the child have a say in this?

Different models of "educational villages" have been tried through different times and cultures. The education of the youth has sometimes been predominantly under the responsibility of one social institution – family, the Church, the State, community - or shared between many. Home Education is one model of an "educational village" where the roles of the institutions and the coordination of their responsibilities represent quite an important shift by comparison with the "School Education-type village".

In this paper, we will examine the case of Home Education in Quebec as an example of new challenges that coordination of education faces today, such as children’s rights issues. Then I will argue that the new ethics of governance can offer help in the problem-solving process.

The Challenge of Home Education

In Quebec (a Canadian province) most home educating families have chosen this educational option for reasons of pedagogical and humanistic nature (Brabant, 2003). Parents put forward a will to respect the child's character and preferences with regards to his or her education, a wish to see their child’s social and emotional development occur in the context of family and active community rather than in school institution and a desire to protect a child who has suffered physical and/or psychological violence from peers or teachers at school. In order to reach these goals, parents have developed or joined cooperative networks, at every level from local to international, offering parental training and support, group activities for children, material resources and legal defence of their practice.

In Canada, Home Education is legal, as it is in most occidental countries. But in the province of Quebec, where the movement is younger, practices of regulation and cooperation between families and the State are still to be built. In some cases, relationships are good between parents and regional school boards. In others, there are tensions, although conflicts almost never reach the courts. However, observations and data (Brabant, 2003; Quebec Association for Home-Based Education, 2005) lead one to believe that about half of the home-educated children and their parents have no relationship at all with the State agents.

This comes from a lack of reciprocal recognition, trust and communication between the families and the educational authorities who have very little shared space and time, if any, to discuss their representations of the education of the youth or to discuss adequate norms for the practice of Home Education. Those who would like to bridge the distance between them lack the financial means, the power to make structures more flexible, the personnel and the know-how to do it. Moreover, some actors are not convinced that seeing education as a shared social project, rather than solely a field of expertise of the State or the matter of one family, could have advantages for children, parents and professional educators. In sum, the situation can be read as a coordination problem: the problem of coordinating the complex reciprocal interdependence between the "villagers".

I’ve used the metaphor of the village in order to introduce the concept of governance, in which the notions of coordination, complex interdependence of actors and shared project are central. In the next section, we will briefly examine notions of governance in light of a theoretical framework developed by Belgian philosophers Jacques Lenoble, Marc Maesschalck and the team of researchers from their centre in Louvain-la-Neuve (UCL).

Reflexive Governance and A Contextualised Pragmatic Approach

The concept of governance is defined by Jessop as "the reflexive self-organization of independent actors involved in complex relations of reciprocal interdependence" (Jessop, 2002, p.1). The most recent developments of the concept, in the context of the European Union for example, qualify this mode of coordination as democratic, participative and pragmatic, with a focus on supporting collective action (Maesschalck, unpublished, p.3-4). According to Jessop, governance is now seen as an "important means to overcome the division between rulers and ruled in representative regimes and to secure the input and commitment of an increasingly wide range of stakeholders in policy formulation and implementation" (Jessop, 2002, p.3).

This new governance model requires both groups (rulers and ruled) to engage in a social learning process (Schön, 1983). Indeed, joined participation in collaborative problem-solving can lead to critical scrutinizing of governing variables: goals, values, plans and rules. In this perspective, "reflexive governance" (Lenoble and Maesschalck, 2003) reviews its own mechanisms to insure institutional learning. Hence, it results in the co-design of institutions and the elaboration of common social representations.

In addition, Maesschalck’s pragmatique contextuelle (contextualised pragmatic approach) (Maesschalck, 2001) stresses the importance of taking into account the specificities of contexts when creating norms. He recommends that, in lieu of the democratic apparatus set by authorities in which community members are invited to participate (school councils, for example), the actors’ ability to participate is mistakenly taken for granted. Therefore, existing cooperative networks should be exploited and supported. Moreover, he suggests that implementation of norms is more likely to be feasible when norms are created in collaboration with the actors in context, since they are the most knowledgeable about the particularities and limits of this context.

A New Governance of Education

Now, let’s look at the educational systems through the lens of governance. Actors committed to education have become more aware in recent years of the complexity of their mission and of new challenges. The adequate education of all children is in itself a complex problem that calls for creative and differentiated solutions. Be it at the school level or at the planet level, the right of the child to education faces different social challenges. Contemporary educational problems, which Cohen and Sabel (1997) would describe as diverse, complex, volatile and dispersed, call for solutions just as complex, non-uniform and sensitive to local characteristics. These authors suggest that the exploration of a wide range of possible solutions to these problems should be encouraged and supported by a good information-sharing system. This would lead to common learning through communication and comparison of local solutions.

Yet in most industrialized countries, the coordination of education is still very much based on a state-centered, hierarchical and "command-and-control" model which favours uniform and compulsory measures. The report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century (Delors, 1996) stressed that improvement in the administration of education worked best when grounded in the participation of local communities. It recommended a decentralization of the school systems in order to bring schools and education closer to communities and families.

When educational systems are decentralized, stakeholders that gain power in decision-making processes are children, parents, community members, school directors and teachers. Consequently, governments and school administrators yield some. They see their role transformed into one of coordination of initiatives and responsibility for communication of successes and failures throughout the system, in order to favour collective learning. Decentralization is being widely operated throughout the Quebec educational system since the 2001 educational reform (Berthelot, Dufourd and Bergeron, 2006). However, this initiative is reorganization within the school system, as school directors or teachers are invited to take up more leadership. Home Education stretches the democratization effort wider, since its collective action originates from parents and takes place outside of schools.

Elaborating Norms for Home Education

Following Lenoble and Maesschalck’s framework, a reflexive governance of education would allow home educating families to question the aims and organization of education. Like Sabel and his collaborators suggested, the State would allow them to experiment with different solutions to educational problems. The government would be responsible for facilitating communication and cooperation between them and other actors of the educational field. This exchange would enhance the social learning of the actors as well as it would favour institutional learning and renewal of education.

As to the regulation of Home Education, a pragmatic and contextualised approach to creating norms, as developed by Maesschalck, would

1- Consider State, professional educators, parents and children as equal interlocutors in a democratic space of discussion about education;

2- Leave prejudices and judgments of values behind to search for concrete and acceptable solutions for all actors;

3- Support collective action of home-educators, because it is a space for social learning, personal development and pedagogical training, and because the child ultimately benefits from it;

4- Consider the context of Home Education as different from the context of school and, consequently, requiring different norms;

5- Consider the home educating parents and children as the main experts to be consulted about the Home Education context;

6- Engage in a dialogue with home educating families about the needs of these children and about the changes in distribution of resources and organizational structures that could make a difference for them;

7- Exploit the existing cooperative networks of the Home Education movement as deliberative mechanisms for the creation of norms, in lieu of deliberative mechanisms originating from the government.


I have argued that the case of Home Education in Quebec can be analysed as a problem of governance, i.e. a problem of coordination of complex reciprocal interdependence. Along with the theorists of governance cited in this paper, I suggested that a reflexive governance model and a pragmatic and contextualised approach to this problem could improve the actual problem-solving process.

To verify this hypothesis, a collaborative study with home educators aims at creating with them facilitating conditions to develop their discourse, to elaborate solutions and to organise their collective action. Meanwhile, I will document the social learning processes at play and the different stages of their collective action.

The hope is that, on the one hand, the home educators will become supporters of the norms they will participate in creating, rather than acting as a resistance force against them; and, on the other hand, that school authorities and the government will be receptive to the propositions of these families engaged toward what they consider a better education for their children.

This way, the Home Education movement could take part fully in a greater movement of reflexivity and renewal of the governance of education, in a cooperative effort between all actors. And that might be a nice thing, because it takes more than a home, more than a school, it takes a village to raise a child.


Berthelot, M., Dufourd, B. and Bergeron, D. (2006, April). La décentralisation en éducation : quelques réflexions sur l’expérience québécoise. Case study presented at Assises francophones de la gestion scolaire, Antananarivo (Madagascar).

Brabant, C., Bourdon, S. and Jutras, F. (2003). Home Education in Quebec : Family First. Evaluation and Research in Education, 17 (2&3), 112–131. On WWW at . Accessed 14.09.2007.

Cohen, J. and Sabel, C. (1997). Directly-Deliberative Polyarchy. European Law Journal, 3, 4, 313-342.

Delors, J. (1996). Education : The Treasure Within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century. Paris : UNESCO and Odile Jacob.

Jessop, B. (2002). Governance and Metagovernance: On Reflexivity, Requisite Variety, and Requisite Irony. Lancaster (UK): Department of Sociology, Lancaster University. On WWW at  Accessed 14.09.2007.

Lenoble J. and Maesschalck M. (2003). Toward a Theory of Governance: The Action of Norms. The Hague/New York/London: Kluwer Law International.

Maesschalck, M. (2001). Normes et contextes. Hildesheim, Zurich, New York : Europaea Memoria.

Maesschalck, M. (unpublished). Les désillusions de la gouvernance démocratique. Sortir du modèle délibératif et après?

Quebec Association for Home-Based Education. (2005). Des nouvelles du comité légal. Portfolio, 8 (2), December, 18-19.

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 11 October 2007