All schools have a statutory duty to take account of the views of parents, and a parents' forum can be a practical way to gather ideas and views. It can also be a useful way to keep parents involved in school life.
Only majority governance trust schools, where the foundation or trust appoints the bulk of the governors, are legally required to have a parent council. You can find guidelines for their composition - in cases where it is required by statute - on the Department for Children, Schools and Families website.
In other schools, it is up to the governing body to decide whether there is a need for a parents' forum and how it will be supported by the school and the governing body.
In contrast to the governing body, parents' forums do not have any statutory duties or powers; instead, their role is to help the school communicate more effectively with the parent community. On average, such forums meet once or twice a term. Meetings can be led by teachers, the head andor governors.
You can find minutes from parents' forum meetings online and these may offer an insight into the kinds of discussion that take place. The topics discussed include anything from the price of school sweatshirts or rubbish bins not being emptied to the cost of school trips or events.
Some schools try to have a representative from each class or year group in their forum. The sizes of the forums we identified varied from seven to 13 members.
Government advice source Teachernet suggests that parent forums need to encourage the participation of parents from a range of backgrounds and circumstances in order to mirror pupil intake.
In particular, they should focus on:
- new parents and experienced parents;
- those with a special relationship and involvement in the life and work of the school;
- fathers and other carers;
- parents who have had a difficult relationship with the school.
Schools should be as inclusive as possible when setting up the forum. Being sensitive to the cultures and languages of local communities can help you to recruit more members. You may need to make information available in several languages. Making the meeting and the premises accessible to parents with disabilities should also be considered.
To ensure that the parents' forum represents the views of the parent community, think about how you gather those views. St Bernard's Catholic Grammar School in Slough has produced a questionnaire for parents and at Ralph Sadleir Middle School in Hertfordshire comments can be emailed to the parents' forum via the school website.
To keep everyone in the loop about the activities of the forum, most schools also publish information about its activities on the school website and in the school newsletter.
For most schools, there are no hard and fast rules for setting up a forum. As long as your chosen structure works for you and your school community, you should reap the benefits of increased parental support.
Answer by Fe McKerrell, a researcher in school communities for The Key, an information service for school leaders. www.usethekey.org.uk.