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Confusion as parents set off for town hall;Briefing;Governors

Plans to give parent-governors a voice on education committees could have serious implications. Mark Whitehead reports.

The rallying cry of "parent power" is about to be given new life. Legislation currently going through Parliament is to create at least 450 places on local authority education committees for school governors representing parents.

Some say it is the biggest step in giving parents more say in the way schools are run since 1973 when they were given places on school governing bodies.

The National Governors' Council is unhappy about the reform. It says it will create two classes of governor: those entitled to stand for election to education committees and those who are not.

Some parents are also not convinced that it will give them a more effective voice in the decision-making process. The Government's heart may be in the right place, but whether it has chosen the best way of involving "stakeholder" interests in schools is more doubtful.

According to the consultation paper on the School Standards and Framework Bill published two weeks ago, the smallest councils will have a minimum of one place for a parent-governor, elected by all the other parent-governors in the authority's schools. The biggest authorities will have between three and five. This will result in at least 450 parent representatives nationwide.

They will have full voting rights alongside elected councillors, making decisions on every aspect of education policy except where it directly affects their own school.

They will be expected to speak for all the parent-governors in their authority's schools. Yet, in most places no mechanism exists for them to find out what other governors think. There are also fears of a substantial conflict of interest. Parent-governors are, after all, elected to promote the interests of their own children's schools.

Peter Towers, father of four school-age children in Amble, Northumberland, says: "This could create a clique of parent-governors which is unrepresentative. Most parents don't know how the system works and feel intimidated by their local councils. There's no guarantee that elected parent-governors will reflect the interests of all parents on, for example, special needs. There will always be a temptation to act for their own schools."

Headteachers have warned that giving parent-governors rights which are denied to other categories of governors could create problems. As it is, disputes between heads and governors have been rising in recent years - and may rise further.

The National Association of Head Teachers points to another danger. With up to five parent-governors on an education committee, the political complexion of an authority could be skewed, even though the Government will advise local authorities to make sure that the political control of their education committees continues to reflect that of the council. Authorities may have to increase the number of members.

But the biggest hurdle facing this parent-power reform could be lack of interest. Finding parents to become school governors, or even to attend the annual parents' meeting, is often extremely difficult. Persuading them to volunteer to join their local education committee may prove impossible.

Pat Ball, general secretary of the Alliance of Parents and Schools, says:

"We already ask parents to give up a huge amount of time becoming governors. It's asking too much to want them to take on another committee. A lot of positions on governing bodies are filled by a bit of arm-twisting."

A better way of involving parents, the Campaign for State Education has long argued, would be to create parents' councils which would discuss their own schools' policies and, in turn, be available for consultation with the governors. These would then feed their views into a local education forum, with representative teachers, parents, businesspeople, and local community figures. Such a forum's main role would be to shadow the local education authority, whose elected members would still decide policy. The structure would be topped by a national parents' council.

The measures in the Bill may lead to such a structure. If parent-governors are given a say on local education authorities, parents may organise themselves into lobbying and campaigning groups. But that seems some way off as yet.

Elaine Mortimer, a mother of two from Bromsgrove in Worcester and secretary of her parent-teachers' association, says parent- governors do not usually go out of their way to consult those who elected them. So parents have little say in school policy, and creating places for parent-governors on education committees will not necessarily solve that problem.

"If a parent governor goes onto the education committee there could be some feedback, but whether that would actually happen, I don't know."

r = Parent governor representatives on education committees, a consultation paper from the Department for Education and Employment (telephone 0845 602 2260)

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