A clearer voice for mum and dad?

Representative bodies that combine the roles of parent-teacher associations and school boards are on the way. But will they give parents abetter deal? Raymond Ross reports

Death by a thousand cuts is the likeliest prospect for Scotland's national parent body under government proposals to boost parental involvement in schools. And the future for school boards looks just as bleak.

As part of the Scottish Executive's push to get parents more involved in their children's education, school boards and parent-teacher associations are expected to be replaced by a single representative body for each school.

The draft Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Bill is due to be published at the beginning of February, and a consultation will be launched the same day.

Ministers want a more flexible and less rigid structure for the new parent forums, and are expected to back local authorities who want to devise local approaches. So, for example, small rural primaries could evolve different strategies from large urban secondaries.

The Education Minister, Peter Peacock, indicated last year that he wants to put personal learning plans and pupil progress reports at the heart of parental involvement. He also wants parents to have better access to schools and improved information on pupil and school performance.

According to the Executive's website, the draft Bill will propose a new duty for education authorities to promote parental involvement and oblige them to provide information and advice on parents' request.

It will also set out "new, flexible arrangements" for parental representation in schools and provide for continuing parental representation in new systems for appointing heads and depute heads.

"I think what the Executive will give us is a parent-friendly body with access to information," says Judith Gillespie, development manager for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, which represents parent-teacher associations.

"I think they'll get rid of the idea of controlling what the parent body looks like, but protect it in terms of being taken seriously and protect its right to information, which is what the SPTC, the Association of Directors for Education in Scotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities advocated in 2000."

The implications are drastic for the Scottish School Boards Association, and its president, Alan Smith, is far from happy.

"The Minister's solution is more dramatic than we expected," he says. "The draft Bill, which will repeal the School Boards Act, thereby removing the requirement for local authorities to have school boards, is not quite what we expected.

"We suspect there will be a move towards a less formulaic approach. Local education services in partnership with parents will be allowed to develop local arrangements for parent representation that better suits local needs."

While the new Bill is "eagerly anticipated" by the SSBA, there is a general feeling that school boards have had their day, and for several reasons.

They are tired and need to be replaced. They were not hugely successful in representing all parents, and a broader spectrum is needed.

Some argue that they were never the right vehicle for parent representation as they were designed for Michael Forsyth's ill-fated opting-out policy, or that parents in Scotland never really liked them and that, in particular, they did not like the elections.

The Forsyth legacy meant that past parental involvement was seen from an institutional rather than a personal viewpoint, that it was more about a management role than about parents' interest in the education of their children. For example, the idea of co-opting members on to school boards was to bring business "expertise" on board, but this seems rarely to have had any significant effect.

But if there is to be a radical shift away from a management role to a more personal involvement, will the new parental bodies have a significant role to play?

Advocates of online and family learning, such as Roy Jobson, president of ADES and director of children's and family services in Edinburgh, believe the new draft Bill could be a golden opportunity to help parents to aid their children's learning, to learn alongside their children and to stretch them.

"Schools are the main drivers of learning, but learning is not just the school's job. Online learning, for example, occurs in industry, commerce, the home," he says.

Brian Boyd, professor of education at Strathclyde University, agrees that a radical shift is needed, but doubts the efficacy of the new parent bodies.

"Parents' involvement should not be about parent power or parents as consumers," he says. "It should be about family learning, parents as participants, about giving them a degree of partnership to boost lifelong learning.

"We need to give them more information on how children learn. In the past, school boards have not been very good at this sort of thing and the new representative bodies won't be enough on their own to achieve this."

But a parent committee is not necessarily the answer, he says.

What seems certain is that individual schools will decide what the new bodies will look like. In smaller schools, it will probably make sense to combine the school board with the PTA, while secondaries might be the first to get rid of PTAs altogether (there is no statutory requirement to have a PTA) and move towards some kind of self-designed committee.

"I suspect that the new parent councils will be statutory bodies and change will come in time, not immediately," says Ms Gillespie.

"Some schools will move very slowly. It will depend on how parents develop them. For the SPTC, it will probably be death by a thousand cuts.

"Change is definite, and there's no immediate requirement that PTAs exist.

It will depend on decisions in individual schools."

The SPTC believes that the good features of school boards (policy deliberation, right to information, ability to lobby, official support) and PTAs (grass-roots focus, social and fundraising roles) should be maintained by the new parent bodies and that these should receive the status and support currently given to school boards.

There will be no one-size-fits-all approach, so each school should designate a member of staff as a parent officer to look at strategies for involving parents, and allocate time for that person to do it.

A single committee structure would also suggest a single committee at national level, something the Scottish Consumer Council also advocates strongly.

"The most obvious gap to us, and it emerges from our research with parents, is in parental representation at a national level," says Martyn Evans, SCC's director.

"A clear commitment to support evidence-based and inclusive parental representation at a national level would be a radical and welcome step."

Given time, such a national body could be constituted by grassroots parent bodies but some kind of interim national parents' association might be set up in the meantime.

Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association, which represents secondary headteachers, believes that there should be no power shift with the new parent bodies.

"We don't want to go down the road of English boards of governors," he says. "We don't want the power of parents, as represented by school boards, either increased or lessened."

The Association of Headteachers in Scotland, representing primary heads, wants parents to remain involved in appointments, but is awaiting details on the nature and extent of parental involvement before it comments on the issue.

A concern for ADES is the role the bodies will play in hiring senior managers in schools.

"At present, parents have a direct say in this while directors of education don't, though they do approve the long leet for interview," says Colin Dalrymple, general secretary of ADES.

"We need to ensure a tripartite approach here - directors, schools and parents. Directors need to be able to put their views."

Current roles

School boards

* approve the headteacher's spending plans

* engage in discussion and development of school policies

* participate in the appointment of staff, particularly senior management

* have a right to information

* have a duty to keep parents informed.

Parent-teacher associations

* are independent of the school, self-financing and get no money from the authorities

* organise fundraising activities

* promote the social dimension in schools

* sometimes have a role in providing information, running extra-curricular activities and acting as a channel for parents' concerns.

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