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Seen, but still not heard

Governors elected to represent parents' views on local education matters are still struggling to gain councillors' respect, reports Karen Thornton.

There was a surprising familiarity to some of the "bugbears" raised by parent-governor representatives at their recent annual conference.

These reps, or PGRs, are supposed to be a parental voice on local councils. Yet they say councillors so not understand their role, councils do not support them and they lack administrative (and in some cases financial)back-up. These problems still seem widespread - nearly two years after the introduction of parent-governor representatives.

Council structural reforms, which have led to Cabinet-style executives overseen by "scrutiny" committees of other members, seem to have added to the problems in some LEAs.

One conference delegate, who attended the same training course on scrutiny and oversight as councillors, said he was surprised to find that fellow PGRs in other areas had not received similar treatment.

Yet PGRs should by now be a familiar part of every education authority in England. Ministers introduced them to ensure parents had some say on local education issues. Elected by fellow parent governors, they are entitled to sit on council education committees and have full voting rights.

The Department for Education and Skills expects PGRs to receive the same support as councillors, and provides an additional pound;1,200 per authority to cover induction and training, help with administration, and payment of travel and childcare expenses.

But at their second annual conference, run by the DFES, representatives complained of being treated like second-class citizens and some called for ministers to issue national guidance. As yet, the department has not set a date for this.

Jim Griffin, from North Yorkshire, said there were too many bugbears in the system, "stopping us from getting on with real things like achieving something for parents." He particularly referred to lack of "parity of esteem" with councillors.

Jonathan Howe, from Poole, said its PGRs were getting paperwork "very much later than council members".

"Maybe a direction is necessary to local authorities so each one treats PGRs the same," he said.

Kevin Willis, from Plymouth, said he was made to feel like a "second-class citizen" during a recent scrutiny committee meeting.

"It was so obvious that four or five people in that room had so much more information than me, and I supposedly have the same rights as them."

Liz Lee, a representative from Brighton, said: "We thought new guidance should be issued not only to directors of education but to chairs of lead committees. We are fortunate - Brighton has been very supportive. But it's clear not all PGRs are treated the same. I know one who has not had expenses paid in two years: she left.

"There should be a national structure in which we are recognised and consulted. The issues decided nationally are the ones we have to decide locally."

Education minister Cathy Ashton told delegates the system needed time to bed down.

"One of the problems of creating something new is it takes some time for the organisations you are working with to catch up. I want to look at what's preventing your full participation. Part of that will be you are new and people are finding it difficult to know how to use you."

In her speech, she said she did not underestimate the challenges facing PGRs, and insisted the Government was taking notice of what they had to say. For example, in response to their suggestions, ministers plan to secure places for PGRs on admissions forums. These were set up last year to voluntarily co-ordinate school admissions arrangements. They will become compulsory if the education Bill currently before Parliament becomes law.

She added: "You have a real opportunity as well to influence what happens in education in your locality and to represent the interests of parents and families."

Other conference sessions covered working on scrutiny committees, the education Bill, ethnic minority data collection, and whether a National Consumer Council course designed to strengthen the voice of the consumer could be applied to PGRs.

Delegates were also worried about the difference in funding levels between authorities; government proposals on faith schools; parental representation on learning and skills councils, the new bodies responsible for post-16 education; special educational needs; and private finance initiatives.

See www.pgrnet.org.uk

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