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Pleasures and politics of school parenthood

Judith Gillespie recalls the stresses and successes of being an 'official' parent, and how she learnt to grade official responsiveness from friendly to 'oh no not her'.

I first became a "Lothian Region parent" in 1978 when my eldest child started at Hope Cottage nursery school, a quiet haven in the backwater of Edinburgh's Cowan Close. What a child's paradise it looked, with its seemingly endless array of possible activities, from dressing up to creative work with cornflake packages, and from outdoor play to the glories of woodwork with real hammers, nails and saws! What self-respecting parent would ever risk such equipment?

Being a parent at such a place was wonderful, not only because of the few hours of child-free bliss but also because the staff's insistence that their focus was the pupils ensured that the children were happy and stimulated. I only came to realise how important this was when we spent a year in America, still with a pre-school child, and "programmes" for his age gloried in titles like "mother's day out".

In terms of parent participation, the aim was mostly to support the main fund-raising event in May - the best school fair ever, with endless sideshows for the children, plus a few stalls with baking and gardening produce to raise money. One novel piece of parental involvement was "fathers' week", when Dads were expected to do their bit. A minister, Gilleasbuig Macmillan, was also a nursery parent and took a bunch of children on a visit to St Giles's Cathedral. Stories came back of my eldest standing in the pulpit shouting: "Hello folks, this is the Muppet Show."

From Hope Cottage we gradually shifted our allegiance to Sciennes primary. At school level, participation still largely meant fund-raising. But the early 1980s saw a change with the first round of Thatcher-inspired education cuts. Specialist teachers were removed from the schools and agitated parents began to find out about such things as per capita allowances and how schools were funded. We quickly learnt that local government will blame central government and vice versa, and the parent's problem is to pin someone down to take responsibility.

My Lothian experience was interrupted by a year in America. While we were there, back here funding problems were getting worse. We returned to industrial action from the teachers. By 1985 the situation had become so bad, with three-day strikes in targeted schools, that it became impossible for parents (well, for me) not to become involved. At the same time, I was asked to become a parent representative on the school council. When I was assured that "no, it's not a lot of work", it would have been churlish to refuse. So also began my involvement as an "official" parent in Lothian.

The retiring parent, handing me the poisoned chalice of the school council, told me she'd had enough of banging her head against the united front of the primary heads. The school council involved the secondary schools, their associated primaries and other education bodies such as nurseries and hospital schools in the area. It had a potential membership of about 50 and included heads, teachers and parents. Usually about half turned up, but the headteachers were punctilious about coming. It worked better than press coverage has suggested. Issues from all sectors were aired, shared and sometimes resolved. We discussed subjects as diverse as seat-belts on school minibuses, Aids, school milk, absence cover, state of buildings and so on.

It was from the school council that I started my long correspondence with Lothian Region and became a connoisseur of different response styles. There was the helpful response, the shut-out response and the "Oh God, not her again" response. In general, if an issue could be solved, it would take about a year - and a lot of letters.

One important success came when we managed to persuade the region, during the refurbishment of Boroughmuir High School, to spend some Pounds 350,000 on a project which parents and staff wanted rather than in the way originally intended. That showed it did not need Michael Forsyth, the radical Scottish Education Minister, and his innovation of a parent-led board for every school to make Lothian responsive, just a lot of hard lobbying. Lothian was also ahead of the game in involving parents on the school council in appointing headteachers.

My experience of this process was that it worked well and was very fair. But then, in each case my preferred candidate was successful.

For me the move from a council covering several schools to a board for each one represented minimal change. True, membership was much smaller but the method of working was very similar, as was the range of topics and the time it took to get a resolution. Responses from the region continue to fall into the same three categories as before, although the ratio is now balanced more towards the "helpful".

Lothian has not followed the line of other authorities in setting up special regional parents' groups. Its one attempt to do this met with a thumbs-down from school board chairpersons who feared that it would become a group of "super-parents" and would block direct access between boards and the region. Better by far, they felt, was their annual meeting with the director of education and convener of the education committee, when anything and everything (but most often the state of school buildings) could be brought up. Meetings to explain devolved school management, local government reorganisation and, this year, the need for funding cuts have met with a reasonably sympathetic hearing from the parents and point to the benefits of open dialogue.

As we move to a new era of single-tier authorities, I can look back on the past 17 years as a Lothian parent and say, quite genuinely, there is a lot of good practice to build on.

Judith Gillespie is chairman of Boroughmuir High School board in Edinburgh and convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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