Skip to main content

Parents struggle to find their true voice

Members of the Scottish School Board Association face some interesting dilemmas in deciding how to respond to the draft Bill and consultation document proposing the abolition of boards and their replacement with rather ill-defined school forums.

It would be unreasonable to expect them to embrace the proposals enthusiastically - that would be rather like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas - but there would be serious risks in simply responding negatively.

Boards have some achievements to their credit. They have helped to raise awareness among parents about the importance of their role in their children's education. In some local authorities, they have led to improved partnerships between parents and education professionals. The SSBA has been able to lobby government on a range of policy issues, perhaps most notably in relation to children with additional support needs. And the association has also run a series of successful conferences and produced some useful publications.

However, the level of parent interest in school board elections has been disappointing. The majority of parents still have low levels of involvement with schools and, where involvement does take place, it is likely to be of an informal rather than a formal kind, and more evident in the early than in the later stages of schooling.

The SSBA has had its internal difficulties which have sometimes attracted unwelcome publicity and there is confusion in the minds of many, including some professionals, about the distinction between school boards and parent-teacher associations. Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that school boards have managed to engage the interest of parents of disaffected pupils.

It would be hard, therefore, to claim that they have been an unqualified success. When they were set up in 1988, they were part of a political agenda by the then Conservative government to reduce the power of professionals, increase the rights of parents as consumers and make local authorities more accountable. The hope was that a significant number of schools might then wish to opt out of local authority control.

This, of course, did not happen and one interpretation of the reluctance of parents to exercise that right is that it represented a vote of confidence in local authority provision and the professionalism of teachers. If the SSBA defends to the hilt the existing arrangements, that could be seen as an endorsement of Conservative policies and the organisation might find itself at the centre of a party political dispute.

There is another potential dilemma. In the consultation document, the precise form and remit of the proposed new school forums is not prescribed - such matters are to be decided at local level. This may encourage a focus on a range of practical issues of undoubted concern to parents - communication between the school and the home, access to teachers, quality of accommodation, discipline policy, school meals, transport, health and safety, primary-secondary liaison.

But if the voice of parents is to be valued, there must also be opportunities to contribute to broader issues of policy. Parents have legitimate views on such things as the relation between schooling and work, the balance of the curriculum and the importance attached to assessment and examinations.

For those views to be heard requires a collective response of some kind, not just the unco-ordinated efforts of localised school forums.

In deciding how to frame its response to the consultation, the SSBA has some hard choices to make - not least between an "insider" approach which relies on "behind the scenes" lobbying of Scottish Executive officials and an "outsider" approach which is more radical and combative, but also high risk.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you