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Labour and parent power

The annual gathering of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council in Glasgow tomorrow will not need reminding that parents are flavour of the month - unless you are a teacher on a collision course with a behaviourally challenged pupil. Helen Liddell, Labour's education spokesman, will none the less dutifully issue such a reminder when she addresses the conference. It was, after all, the emphasis on "valuing parents" and "breaking down the barriers" in the party's policy document, Every Child is Special, which sowed the seeds of some suspicion among teachers that Labour was not exactly extending to them its traditional affection.

Complaints from teachers' leaders about what they saw as Mrs Liddell's obsession with failing teachers and failing schools have tended to obscure one rather confused aspect of Labour's proposals which she may want to take the opportunity to clarify. Although the party's document has a commendably positive emphasis on classroom-based involvement of parents in schools, it is much less clear about the future of school boards. The policy paper rejects school boards as a "dismal failure" yet goes on to recreate them in the shape of "a commission for each school".

This may of course give the SPTC something it has long desired: a lesser voice for parents in school management. The Government's view, of course, is that the apathetic stance of parents towards boards may not be unconnected with those self-same lack of powers. If it's just a toothless talking shop, why bother?

The assumption that bodies with teeth are any more successful, however, is challenged from south of the border this week. Not only has Birmingham 5,000 governor vacancies, but an official report states bluntly (TESS2, page 22): "Greater clarity about the role of governors in a range of school management issues is needed before governors will be equipped to participate in a fully informed way in such decision-making processes."

This was a specific reference by OFSTED to governors' powers to set pay levels for heads and deputies. But the report also concludes that many governors are uneasy about their responsibilities, see their role as supporting the school, rely frequently on the headteacher, and are not rushing to take their seats particularly in schools serving disadvantaged areas. Where have we heard all this before?

Labour in Scotland will have to consider putting some flesh on the skeletal school boards, redesigning the teeth of governing bodies, or going back to the drawing board. There is no doubt the best of the boards have opened up schools, sometimes firing bullets on behalf of headteachers. But neither Scotland nor England yet appears to have found the elusive formula.

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