Ask the family

Ministers want parent-governors to give them the views of parents. But are they the best people to do this? And is their profile being raised at the expense of other governors? Karen Thornton reports.

PARENT-GOVERNORS are flavour of the month. The Government wants to set up a support network for the several hundred who should by now be elected to English education authorities. And it is looking for two to fill the parent places on the General Teaching Council, the new professional body for teachers.

The network will allow representatives on local authorities to share their experiences, and also "provide Department for Education and Employment ministers with a further source of advice on the views of parents", according to the advertisement inviting tenders to run the service (TES, May 19).

Ministers have emphasised the importance of parents as children's first educators, and the key role they can play in raising academic standards. Family literacy projects, early-years support programmes such as Sure Start and local authority parent partnership schemes are all part of a wider agenda to increase and support parents' involvement in their children's education.

But when it comes to seeking views can parent-governors fairly be said to represent "ordinary" parents? Research has shown that governors, who tend to be middle-class, are often not at all representative of the communities that elected them.

What's more there seems to be some confusion over who parent-governors are representing.

Some delegates at the National Governors' Council's recent spring conference reported that long-standing governor representatives previously co-opted onto local education committees are being thrown off in favour of the legally required parent-governor representatives. Governor associations that protested were told parent-governors will represent the interests of governors - even though they were elected to the LEA to represent parents.

David Butler, director, of th National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations says: "A governor is a manager and administrator of the system within their school, has a duty of care towards staffing and the curriculum, and must act as part of a body of governors.

"Surely there's a tension between their responsibilities and the interests of parents as consumers of education."

Another problem with the new structure is it emphasises parent-governors at the expense of other members of governing bodies.

There are obvious practical advantages to using parent-governors to tap into parental views. Holding elections to local authorities in which all parents could stand and vote doesn't bear thinking about.

Chris Gale, NGC's chairwoman and a former parent-governor, is worried that boosting the role of one group will lead to divisions as others - such as teacher or LEA governors - band together in similar networks.

"Parents are consumers, which is a different ball game (to governors). Together, the GTC appointments and the network are very worrying. The network is enhancing parent-governors. Before you know it, you've got factions on governing bodies."

Lord Puttnam, chairman of the GTC, assured delegates at the NGC conference (see right) that it would be consulted about filling the teaching council's parent places.

He spoke of his hopes for a stronger coalition of parents and teachers - a goal that might be helped by putting parents on the council of teachers' professional body.

"We have to create some lasting form of partnership or coalition between teachers and parents. Successive governments have benefited enormously by fanning suspicion between teachers and parents, because a coalition between parents and teachers is a politically unstoppable force.

"If that coalition starts looking at the funding of education, they are going to get very unhappy and very displeased. I'm desperately keen to change the relationship between parents and teachers," he said.

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