ONCE UPON a time in the bad old days (the spin doctors would tell you) there were parent-governors on the Inner London Education Authority's schools committee. They were chosen by their peers and had their own office in County Hall, their own administrative support and the right to summon the most senior officers to account for their actions. They were a power to be reckoned with.
Now, under the School Standards and Framework Act, all local authorities must have appointed between two and five elected parent-governor representatives to their committees that oversee education by June 2000 .
All parent-governors of schools maintained by an authority have a vote, but to stand for election they must be an elected parent-governor and a parent of a child in one of the local schools at the time of the election. Foundation parent-governors are not eligible to stand or vote.
Will the new parent-governor representatives have the clout of their ILEA predecessors? More importantly, will the committees they sit on have real power - or will (as the Government is proposing) local education instead be run by a presidential-style mayor and a cabinet, with the education committee reduced to a "scrutineering" role? It is quite clear in the Department for Education and Employment guidance that, if this is the case, parent-governors will not be part of the inner circle.
The guidance suggests that their role will include:
speaking for parents and pupils at council meetings;
voting on key decisions (but not on the size of the education budget);
keeping in touch with parents;
acting as a sounding board on proposals;
ensuring that the authority is aware of parents' views;
influencing decisions that affect schools; and P> helping to make sure that resources are used effectively.
The real problem will be the one faced by every parent-governor, but multiplied by the number of local schools: how to keep in touch with their parent-constituents.
They will have to show that they are aware of what concerns parents, and will need to be able to report back to them effectively. Otherwise, they will lack credibility.
The DFEE guidance has a number of suggestions about how representatives can communicate with parents, but warns that these could be very time-consuming. They include regular meetings with parent-teacher associations and governor associations, taking a stall at community events, offering an occasional phone-in service, writing in the local paper or school newsletters. All these are good ideas, but, even with proper administrative support, this could be a full-time job.
Another problem will be how to know what is going on behind the scenes at the council.
Parent-governors are rightly urged to steer clear of political entanglements, but, if they are cut off from party deliberations, who is to keep them informed of the hidden agendas?
That's where the ILEA parent-governors scored because they had regular formal meetings with fellow parent-governors and had the power to call in reports.
The ILEA experience proved that parent-governors can have a significant impact. But relations between parents, governors and the authority could easily be damaged if the new parent representation is seen as mere tokenism, with no real power.
Felicity Taylor is a co-director of Information for School and College Governors (ISCG).
The DFEE information hotline for parent-governor representatives, telephone 0217 925 5795. For free copies of the DFEE's guidance for parent- governor representatives, telephone 0845 6022260.
New parent-governor pack, price pound;5, available from ISCG at Avondale Park School, Sirdar Road, W11 4EE