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Consumer voice backs Labour

Labour's education proposals have found a friend at last as the Scottish Consumer Council embraces many of the ideas put forward by Helen Liddell, the party's spokesperson.

But one major reservation is raised over the broadly based school commissions that are planned to replace school boards. Deirdre Hutton, the SCC's chairman, observes that seven out of 10 schools have boards and the effort should go into improving how they work.

Mrs Hutton says the rest of the consultation document is helpful and welcomes its child-centred approach. "We are aware of some of the criticisms already made, in relation to resource implications," she states. "However, the approaches believed to improve education for children need to be spelled out first, and the structure of resources should be expected to evolve to support these. Proposals based on the existing situation would not be helpful."

The SCC's response backs Labour's emphasis on the role of parents, in particular the idea of parent advocates and learning "compacts" between home and school, but challenges the party to do more to empower parents. They should be involved in decisions about their children's choices and local authorities should set up proper complaints procedures.

The council also wants a complaints system to feature in Labour's plans for strengthening school inspections and extending the role of the General Teaching Council. HMIs should monitor systems for handling parent and pupil complaints during school inspections.

The report adds: "For many reasons parents can find it difficult to make a complaint to the school. For example, they may be unsure of confidentiality, be afraid of reprisals against their child, not want to be seen as a trouble-maker, or simply be unaware of how to deal with their concerns.

"A well publicised and accessible complaints procedure is important to the sensible handling of problems which might otherwise remain unaired, leading to further problems in a child's education."

The SCC does not believe school commissions would improve parental involvement. It suggests instead making local authorities more accountable to the wider body of parents and helping school boards communicate more effectively with parents. Health and social work representation on boards could be another useful change.

Commending Labour's suggested introduction of a parent advocate, which has been rejected by headteachers, and an annual report by the school to parents, the SCC calls for thorough research into the information needs of parents and children. Little is usefully known about these needs, the response states.

The submission also makes a strong case for boosting parental interest through giving schools more control over the curriculum. Schools could be allowed to decide what and how subjects are taught, as in Finland. If schools were able to meet parents' curricular preferences, the SCC suggests, "then the need for placing requests will be diminished".

The council also presses the argument for "classrooms without walls" by exploiting the potential of information technology. This, its paper believes, would open up further choice for parents and pupils by allowing schools to co-operate, overcoming timetabling problems which prevent many children from studying the subject of their choice.

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