Parent-teacher associations in the US might seem a world away from the poorly supported groups in many of our own schools, but are they any more effective? Hilary Wilce reviews a damning critique
Anyone who has been to a Parent-Teacher Association meeting in the United States will know just how different American PTAs are from ours. First, lots of people will turn up. And almost no one - at least in the suburbs - will have slopped along in jeans and a sweatshirt; dressing up is de rigueur. Business will be crisp, questions aggressive, and fund-raising plans grand and lucrative.
It seems a world away from the typical British PTA meeting - too often a dismal and woolly affair at which a few enthusiasts will try to stir life into an apathetic and largely absent parent body.
At national level, too, the picture seems very different. The National PTA is the US's fifth-largest voluntary organisation, with affiliated local groups in about one-fifth of its private and public schools. It was founded from the 19th-century National Congress of Mothers in 1924 and quickly went on to embrace an enormous agenda including health and welfare as well as ethics, national security and world peace.
But today the National PTA concentrates on lobbying for federal welfare and education legislation - an agenda that leads Charlene Haar to conclude that this is an organisation whose time has gone. It is, she claims, a "figurehead organisation", far removed from parents' real concerns, and under the thumb of teacher unions. The "low profile but heavy hand" of the National Education Association is, she says, evident in every part of its work, from selecting conference speakers and setting convention agendas to controlling the issues the organisation addresses, and making sure PTA members stay neutral in teacher labour disputes. Haar, who is president of the Washington-based Education Policy Institute, has her own views and agenda, but the case she makes is detailed and damning.
All of which seems a far cry from our own National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations. It appears to be under nobody's thumb, but lives quietly in Kent, supporting local PTAs and putting out policy positions that attract little attention. In a calamitous episode in 1997, a Charity Commission investigation found the body had "no overall strategy or direction" and "had allowed itself to be side-tracked by internal disputes that created rifts within the organisation".
But if the troubles of the two organisations are very different, the outcome is similar. On neither side of the Atlantic is there a dynamic, national parents' association speaking up for the interests of students and families. In the US, according to Haar's ruthless conclusion, the National PTA has "lost its rationale for existence along with its independence. It can neither stand up to teacher union interests nor fairly represent parental interests in improving local schools."
Valiantly she sketches out a blueprint for the kind of national parent organisation that might work. It would, she says, recognise that parents' concerns sometimes conflict with those of teachers, and would present all sides of controversial issues, leaving members to lobby for their preferred outcome through other organisations. It would also "recognise that all family structures and lifestyles are not easily conducive to children's welfare, and hold to this position even when facing the organisation's need for members and revenue".
But Haar must know that within these kinds of contentious issues lies the rub. Because parents will never be a homogeneous lot. They come together to support local schools because they have a common vested interest in helping their children get the most out of them. Widen the boundaries and people will immediately fall away, unlikely to agree on issues or strategies. Which is why a national PTA is never likely to be effective. And why, when Haar calls the US National PTA "irrelevant", she is probably right.