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A modest rally rescues democracy

School boards are here to stay, even if parents are not rushing to stand. Neil Munro looks at the message from the latest election returns

The chief executive of the Scottish School Board Association believes that boards are now so well entrenched they do not need statutory protection. "Schools do not have to form boards, there is no compulsion, yet four out of five schools have one," Ann Hill says. "So the legislation in a sense is not necessary."

Mrs Hill, while not calling for the legislation to be repealed, says it can be streamlined. In particular, she supports the option in the Government's consultation document that by-elections could be scrapped. Parent vacancies would then be filled by co-option. At present parents can only be co-opted after the by-election stage. "In what other forum do people have to stand twice?" she asks.

It seems parents still feel boards have a purpose even if they do not want to stand themselves. Kay Stairs, Glasgow's school boards development officer, believes part of the explanation is that the Government "has established a mood that boards have a positive role. They are not just regarded as a complaints body or a ploy to lead schools out of council control."

Although Glasgow has more boards than before - up 10 despite having 10 fewer schools - Ms Stairs says it is difficult to compare the 1997 results with those of 1995. The disaggregation of the former Strathclyde Region and school closures have complicated the picture.

Ivy Kerr, North Lanarkshire's parents' officer, says parents value the role of boards and do not want them to go. In the first round of the council's elections 79 schools produced no parent nominations at all, which meant their boards faced the axe if they could not fill the seats in the rerun. "Parents, many of whom already sat on boards and who stood back to see if others would come forward, suddenly realised that their board could fold," she says. Nominations duly appeared.

Some issues do concentrate parents' minds. The trauma of closures appears to persuade parents that boards can speak out for them. Crookston Castle Secondary and All Saints Secondary are two Glasgow schools facing upheaval where new boards were established at the last minute. A new board at Balallan primary in the Western Isles, also appears to be explained by reorganisation plans.

The picture generally is of a remarkably stable position. "There has been very little change since 1994," Garry Lambie, school boards officer in Falkirk, says. But Ray Richards, who is responsible for school boards in Orkney, fears that "axe-grinders" are being elected because there is no opposition and very few elections are contested (see table). "This is a worry for the school board system and for the schools themselves," Mr Richards states. "I can't help feeling that apathy is to do with the fact that boards are not getting the powers they thought they were. The result is they are not as representative as they were at the beginning."

Ms Kerr in North Lanarkshire agrees. "There are places where it is true that people with an axe to grind come to the fore because they think there is something wrong in the school that has to be sorted out."

Mrs Hill says additional powers are a way forward but only if they are a "natural progression". Headteachers should have the approval of boards for school development plans, for example. "I think teachers as well as parents would welcome that because it strengthens the partnership."

Many councils go out of their way to make sure boards are set up and that as many parents are involved as possible to ensure they are representative. Jean Inglis, administrative officer in Inverclyde, believes this explains why all its schools have boards for the first time. Tom Smith in West Lothian says: "The fact that there has been an increase in the number of our schools with boards suggests that parents believe they should have a say and they should have boards."

There are many reasons why boards do not emerge from the electoral process. Balivanich primary, one of the largest in the Western Isles, is a surprising example. Allan Mackinnon, one of the council's administrative officers, suggests a strong parent-teacher association is one of the reasons.

But Mrs Hill points to other reasons. "Where there is no school board, we have generally found that it is the wish of the headteacher who is keen to have a strong PTA instead. It is a way of controlling the parents, either because they fear the powers of school boards or they are the old-fashioned types who believe parents should be kept at the school gate."

Christine Ferguson, Edinburgh's school board officer, agrees headteachers' reluctance to "push boards" largely accounts for their absence. Many of the city's schools without boards are in disadvantaged areas, she points out, although they do have PTAs.

The bureaucracy surrounding elections is often cited as another inhibiting factor. The complexities of forcing parents to seek support for their nominations and then submitting election manifestos is an issue, Ms Kerr says.

The very openness of the system could also be a reason for parental shyness, Mrs Hill says, and is another argument for cutting down the number of elections. "If a councillor stands for election and comes bottom of the poll, that is seen as the party's failure. But if you stand as a parent in a school board election and fail, it's your failure."

But Malcolm Renny, education development officer in South Ayrshire, "can't see how you can have a fair and open procedure that does not involve formality".

"People don't want the informal tap on the shoulder either," Ms Kerr argues, "because that leads to cliques being formed."

Caroline Robertson of Stirling Council believes the freedom to co-opt parent members where vacancies persist after by-elections has helped cut out some of the bureaucracy associated with elections. "But it also lengthens the time-scale since boards have three months to fill the vacancies," she says.

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