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An economy they'll regret?

Parent governors may set up a national organisation in the wake of a cancelled conference. Karen Thornton reports

CANCELLING this year's annual conference for parent governor representatives may prove politically costly for the Department for Education and Skills.

Officials have saved some taxpayers' money, given the relatively low number of PGRs who had expressed an interest in attending.

But now they will have to face the possible creation of a national parents' council - born of an alternative parent governors' representatives' conference organised by the Campaign for State Education.

PGRs, elected by fellow parent governors, were introduced in 1999 to provide a parental voice on local councils. They have voting rights on educational issues.

Around 50 representatives from 38 education authorities attended the low-key CASE event in the splendid surroundings of Birmingham's Council House.

On the table was a discussion paper which, if carried through, would create a representative and lobbying organisation capable of influencing government policy and offering training to PGRs.

A meeting next week of regional representatives will discuss sending it to all 300-odd PGRs in England in a bid to gain their support for the move before an approach to the DfES.

Liz Lee, a governor from Brighton and Hove, told the Birmingham meeting that the proposals were born of frustration at the lack of support and recognition given to them by some education authorities, as well as central government.

"The status quo is not an option. Vacancies could be harder to fill and it could lead to a declining role. The Government could conclude that parents had their chance to make their views known and did not take it," she said.

"A national parents' council would allow Education Secretary Charles Clarke a structured approach for talking to a representative group of parents.

They may not always like what they hear, but in a democracy they should be willing to take the opportunity."

But there are hurdles to overcome, not least likely opposition from the DfES, which would be asked to fund the organisation, as it has the National Governors' Council since its inception (although that cash is now gradually being withdrawn).

Mr Clarke has already told PGRs that it is difficult to see how another organisation could add to the Department's work on consulting parents.

Terry Douris, a Hertfordshire governor and chair of the eastern regional group, told colleagues there was no ministerial support for widening their role on to a national platform. He warned: "The future of the support we currently enjoy may be thrown into doubt."

This includes an email network and newsletters provided via the National Foundation for Educational Research. However, a system of regional meetings broke down some time ago.

Several governors also expressed concern about how efficient and representative a national body could be when they were still facing problems trying to communicate with fellow parent governors - never mind parents in general - in their own education authorities.

Clare Steel, from Somerset, said: "We will not be seen as a national force until there is good representation across the range."

Joan Sallis, The TES's governors' agony aunt, said better recognition and treatment nationally could lead to more parent governors standing at local level.

But she added: "I suspect many of you here are as concerned about how you can properly reflect the views of parents in your locality without a structure for doing so, as you are with having a voice in national politics. We need both."

Other organisation, such as the NGC, the National Association of Governors and Managers and the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations may also feel threatened by a new rival.

The NCPTA claims to represent more than six million parents and teachers via 12,500 member associations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It does some lobbying, but has been relatively low profile since recovering from political in-fighting in the late 1990s.

However, it is sanguine about the possible competition. Margaret Morrissey, NCPTA spokeswoman, said: "Parents' views are not exclusive to our organisation. The more of us that are involved in putting forward the views of parents, the more chance that the Government will listen."

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