Fair shouts for parents

Ministers should think again about the best way to give them a statutory role in schools, says Judith Gillespie.

IF you want parents to turn up at a school, tell them you are going to close it down. This is an established truism among education professionals. However, it accurately reflects the true nature of parent involvement. Parents are there because they have children at school. If they did not, they would not be involved. Their interest focuses on the things that have an impact on their own children - and closing the school comes pretty high up the list.

Indeed, if we consider the times when parent pressure has erupted on to the national stage, the issue was always one which individual parents could see had a direct impact on their own children. In the mid-eighties, the campaign against national testing had such massive support because parents feared their children would not do well in the tests. When parents campaigned for seat belts in school buses following the tragic death of two children in a road accident, they were rightly concerned with their own children's safety.

When thousands of parents joined teachers to march through the streets of Edinburgh in 1996 to complain against constant cuts in government spending, it was because they could see the lack of money was again having an adverse effect on their own children. Most recently, when parents complained vociferously over the exams debacle, it was because their children had suffered.

It is not surprising that the form of parental involvement set up by parents themselves very much reflects this dimension. Parent teacher and parent associations, their own creations, are often chaotic. They become involved in a range of activities to do with the welfare of the children, whether this is fundraising to support the school or organising discos for the children, but every now and then they get annoyed enough to take on a serious issue.

As the Scottish Executive is busy congratulating itself on the 1,500 responses to the national debate, it is worth reminding ministers that the original consultation on setting up school boards attracted 8,000 responses, 96 per cent of which were opposed. A huge number came from PTAs in stark contrast to the minimal response rate from school boards to government consultations in subsequent years.

However, the nature of parent involvement was utterly ignored when school boards were set up. It is well known that their raison d'etre had nothing to do with increasing parent participation, but rather with laying the groundwork for taking education out of the hands of local authorities through the opting-out process. Consequently boards owe more to business management structures than to parent interests. They are small, have complicated election procedures, bring in outsiders and, more crucially, focus on management issues like the school development plan rather than tuning into parents' views.

Philip Banks's recent critique of school boards is an accurate description of all that is wrong with the structure. The fact that many parents have worked hard to do the best they can with a flawed set-up does not make that set-up any more acceptable.

However, the Banks report does not really move us forward because it looked at how parents can best serve the system, not how the system can serve parents. It is not, after all, for parents to deliver the Executive's raising achievement agenda. Parents do have a right to expect the very best education but do not have to worry about how this is delivered any more than customers of Scottish Water have to work out how clean water is supplied to their taps - as long as it is.

So, what should be done? The starting point is to refocus on why parents are involved; to recognise that their central interest is their own child. The second is to recognise that their level of interest and involvement will vary according to their own time availability and the relevance of the issues. The stushie over the 2000 exam diet only affected the parents of children who had sat the exams, but not parents of primary school children.

The fundraising and social activities of PTAs and PAs are important in building a sense of community but the right of boards to receive information and be consulted has been important in establishing a better dialogue with officials. Clearly both are needed, but packaged in a parent-friendly way.

he best solution is a statutory role, but leave detailed arrangements to local decisions. Membership should be flexible and open. There should be none of this "non-members can attend as observers" nonsense which bedevils wider involvement in boards. The central support currently offered to boards should be widened to support all parents and the focus should be on parents' needs. Consultations should be openly sifted with parents actively invited to respond to those of most relevance to them - for example, the recent consultation on school meals - but informed of the others so that they can pursue them if they want.

Costly election systems should be abolished and the money used to improve communications between schools and parents, perhaps with more direct mailings home. And the important role parents have in helping to build the school community should be recognised and supported, not regarded as some inferior activity, tolerated only because it delivers extra money for the headteacher.

With one body embracing all parent activities, the headteacher and staff will find it easier to be involved and keep parents informed. Of course, the consequence is that the need for two parent bodies at a national level will disappear. True - and who said turkeys never vote for Christmas? However, the rationale should always be for good and effective parent involvement.

Judith Gillespie is development manager with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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