Can school boards survive?

Ian Mills

Ian Mills looks at the future for parent democracy under Labour and a Scots parliament.

The democratic process is working overtime this year. Following the general election in May and the referendum in September, the next major democratic exercise is the school board elections this month. While it is unlikely that they will receive the same media attention as the other two events, in terms of the education service they are no less important and will be a measure of the degree to which parental involvement and partnership have moved forwards in recent years.

The lead-up to the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988 (yes, it's almost 10 years ago) provoked an unprecedented level of response to the consultation exercise and much newsprint was expended on the proposals for the subsequent legislation. The TES Scotland ran a series of features with headlines like "A spurious prospective for irresponsibility", "Heavyweight opposition builds up", "Business leaders decline seats" and "Decisive thumbs down from local authorities". All that is now history and school boards have become an established part of the education scene. Through the Scottish School Board Association, a forum has been established where representatives can meet with politicians and officials at both local and national level. Indeed, following local government reorganisation, a number of councils took steps to formalise the status of boards by appointing a representative to their education committee.

Labour's pre-election publication Every Child is Special: A Compact for Scotland's Future challenges the extent to which school boards have in fact served a useful purpose: "School boards are seen as a top down failure, a device imposed on Scotland by a Conservative Secretary of State." The leaflet issued by the Scottish Office before the current round of elections identifies boards as "representing a partnership among parents, staff and the local community. They provide an opportunity for parental involvement based on the desire to support the school and to participate meaningfully in its activities." At the heart of the debate is the extent to which school boards reflect a meaningful partnership with parents and the means by which they provide a vehicle for extending parental involvement in schools and the wider education service.

A parent is required by law to provide a child with "efficient education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude". The vast majority fulfil this legal obligation by sending their child to an education authority school. There is no shortage of research evidence to show the correlation between a child's level of attainment and the level of parental support. A Scottish Office memorandum in 1974 indicated that "parental interest in and sympathy with the aims of the school influence the motivation and achievement of many pupils at least as much as the circumstances in which the children are taught".

A survey in the 1970s by the Scottish Consumer Council indicated that many parents were unclear as to their legal rights and duties with regard to their own children. In addition, the survey showed that around a third of parents made no visits to school to discuss their child's progress. There was, however, across Europe a move during the 1980s to seek closer home-school links as this was seen to be of benefit to the individual child. Some countries had well established systems for parental participation and it was only a matter of time before this country would give more serious thought to more appropriate mechanisms to involve parents.

It could be argued (and indeed was) that the establishment of school boards by the Conservative government was a means of breaking the perceived domination of local authorities and teacher unions in educational policy-making. In recent years, parents have been given more formal status with regard to their relationships with the education service. More opportunities exist to exert choice and influence policy-making on educational matters. Parents expect and are entitled to information about their child and access to school staff to pursue issues relating to their child's education. But structures to obtain "parental views" and to allow parents to influence policy making in the wider sense did not meet the previous government's expectations and given the comments in Every Child is Special there appears continuing dissatisfaction with the school board structure.

Perhaps the concept of parents as a homogenous group is flawed. Consequently it becomes difficult to mobilise parents into organisations, which can then be used to exert an influence on the education community. The previous government did not appear to have won the hearts and minds of the parents it was seeking to empower. They are a transitory body exerting direct influence only for the lifetime of their own children within the school system. Yet as citizens, they can influence the delivery of the public education system on an ongoing basis through the ballot box. The question "Who speaks for the parents?" posed in a TES Scotland editorial in June 1992 remains open.

The education community will look forward to any proposals for school commissions as set out in Every Child in Special. In the proposed commissions, parents are only one of a range of community representatives to be included. There has never been any disagreement that parents have a fundamental concern for their child's educational well-being and that the major influence of parents will be exerted by developing the partnership at the point of delivery: the school and the class teacher. The previous government's consumer-led approach to "parental involvement in education" never sat easily with the desire on the part of parents to establish a more meaningful partnership with schools, councils and indeed the government itself.

There will be interest in parental response to the current round of elections - how many school boards will fail to attract the necessary number of parents to fill vacancies, how many will require to hold an election of parents, and more importantly how long will the present structure remain in place pending government proposals for commissions?

Looking even farther into the future, the evolving role of the single-tier councils and the as yet unknown role of the Scottish parliament in the education service will become clearer. In this context, parents as consumers of the education service on behalf of their children and as citizens will have an opportunity at the next round of local government elections and those for a Scottish parliament to give a clear indication on the future delivery of the education service.

In the midst of all this, it is still important that schools, councils and parents themselves continue to develop the partnerships that are so important to young people's education.

Ian Mills is director of education and leisure services for East Dunbartonshire.

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