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Parent power returns

The news that the Charity Commissioners have lost patience and appointed a manager to take over the troubled National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations is a welcome relief on two counts.

First, it ends a period of embarrassing turmoil, during which parents have been deprived of a credible national voice.

Second, Richard Hill, the trouble-shooter drafted in from management consultants KPMG, is rightly focusing on (among other things) future strategy and a vision for the charity. He is raising the uncomfortable question: what exactly is the NCPTA for?

In the past, there is no doubt that it played a valuable role in bringing parents and teachers together in practical ways, and in helping them to understand each other. Many schools would never have established parent-teacher associations or home-school councils had it not been for the confederation. But times change, and the role of parents in education is changing too. What the NCPTA has not been able to deliver - and looks unlikely to do so in the future - is a clear and credible parental voice, speaking out on behalf of parents, giving government a reasoned account of their needs and views, and playing a real role in policy-making. However desirable co-operation may be between parents and teachers on the ground, it is inappropriate to have them attempting to speak with one voice at the national level - their interests, after all, are not the same. Teachers have their own organisations; why should parents not have one too?

Parental participation in education has two main aspects: the involvement of parents in their own child's school, and their influence on policy-making. Historically, Britain has been rather good at the first (at the primary level, anyway), and rather weak on the second. Compared with other countries, our primary teachers are expert in making the most of parental assistance in the classroom. In many other countries, teachers would feel very suspicious concerning a host of educational activities involving parents which are commonplace in British schools. But parents in other countries are often far better represented at local or national level. This is partly because we do not have a pool of lively committed parents on which to draw. In order to remedy this lack, the Government should now encourage the setting up of a parents' association in every school - to a recommended structure.

For example, in Denmark, all the parents in a particular class get together regularly - sometimes with the teacher - to discuss plans and problems. Four or five are nominated as "contact parents" and are responsible for keeping in touch with the others. Every year, two are elected to the school's parents' council. In this way, Danish schools manage to draw on the parental grassroots more effectively than most of ours do.

Teachers, naturally, might have doubts about parents becoming more closely involved in school life; but the few British schools which have set up class councils like these find that the parents become a valued resource. Parents can help in school libraries, run bookshops and tuckshops, organise sporting events, class theatre trips and school photographs - and free up the teachers to teach.

What's more, parents' associations in the schools help to build a reservoir of energetic and informed parents. In Ireland, for example, school parents' councils elect representatives to a National Parents' Council which is respected by Government and plays a real role in policy-making.

Many governments, of course, feel rather ambiguous about parent power. Recent Conservative governments, for example, were keen to make use of it as a lever to raise standards, but became hostile when parents attempted to flex their new muscles on issues such as national curriculum testing or inadequate school funding.

This Government seems genuinely keen to bring parents into the frame - but is uncertain how to do so. It has made a start - albeit a very limited one - by mandating every local authority education committee to co-opt at least one parent member. Appointing parents to task forces and consultative committees would be another important step; and so would clear guidelines on how to set up class councils and parents' associations in the schools. Ultimately, we might hope to see a properly-constituted National Parents' Council - but how quickly this might happen depends on the outcome of Mr Hill's interesting trouble-shooting exercise.

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