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Parents 'are out on a limb'

"There is nothing quite like the helplessness of a parent confronting a school," according to the senior policy adviser to Henry McLeish, the former First Minister.

John McTernan, now a senior policy adviser at 10 Downing Street, said not even when he was at the heart of government in Scotland did he feel that, as a parent, he could have any influence.

Mr McTernan told directors: "The strongest culture in the UK is not the canteen culture of coppers but the staffroom culture of schools. It is 30 years of accumulated wisdom - or prejudice, depending on which way you look at it."

Schools "are the only part of the public service that holds the public hostage - and it's a long-term relationship".

Mr McTernan, a former TES Scotland columnist, suggested that the fundamental challenge facing education in dealing with parents is "batch mode production". There was a huge tension between parents, whose child is unique to them, and schools, where "people of the same age are stuck in the same room and taught the same things".

Schools needed to personalise their contact with the public, he said. There should, for instance, be no place for letters home that begin, "Dear Parent Carer".

He called for schools to tap into the commitment and enthusiasm of parents and not wait to see that mobilised only when there is a conflict over, say, a school closure. Mr McTernan told directors they had to learn the art of conversation with parents - "and conversation isn't just asking people to wait their turn to speak: it's also listening".

But Roy Jobson, the new ADES president, who has had recent battles over school closures in Edinburgh, asked: "What happens if the public is wrong?"

Mr McTernan replied that people had to be involved at a much earlier stage, "rather than them being presented with proposals which everyone knows are 5 per cent changeable and 95 per cent unmoveable".

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