Beyond the moaning shop

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Neil Munro talks to the SSBA's new president about her thoughts on the future of parent power in schools

We have Ann Hill to thank for propelling Caroline Vass to the giddy heights of the executive board of the Scottish School Board Association, of which she is the new president.

Mrs Vass, a sales and marketing manager with Barrington Stokes, the specialist publisher of books for struggling readers, saw the SSBA's former chief executive on television talking about "what parents think" (the issue being the cause cel bre of section 28, which forbade teachers from promoting homosexuality in schools).

The SSBA of the day had become caught up in the eventually unsuccessful campaign to prevent the abolition of section 28. But Mrs Vass's reaction to Mrs Hill was: "That's not what I'm thinking." And she has been at the top of the association since then - sometimes turbulently - toppling Alan Smith, the previous president, at the annual meeting earlier this year.

Mrs Vass, however, does not consider she stood against Mr Smith. "I was asked to stand," she says. "There was a feeling that people wanted someone who was democratic and open, particularly in dealing with our reservations over the proposed legislation on parent forums, which some of us thought were not being properly aired."

There are no doubt some on the SSBA executive board who will feel Mrs Vass's reservations are not thorough enough either; some on the executive, we understand, do not want school boards abolished and replaced with parent forums. But Mrs Vass's support for some aspects of the legislation, such as getting rid of the inflexible election and membership systems for parents, does not sound like much support at all.

She has a fundamental disagreement with the principle of the legislation.

"It needs a better structure," she says. "There is too much being left open to interpretation by individual local authorities. It is simply not robust enough."

She denies she does not trust authorities but agrees that some may do the bare minimum when it comes to consulting and involving parents. "It is a fact that not all authorities are as supportive of school boards as they could be."

In the meantime, the SSBA is pressing changes on the Education Minister and Mrs Vass says there have been productive meetings. She wants the current regime, where parents, the headteacher and teacher representatives meet as a board, to be retained on a statutory basis - the concern behind her famous jibe that parent forums would be "moaning shops" which might result in parents talking only to themselves.

If the primary legislation is not amended in the way she would like, Mrs Vass wants the minister to make the guidance he is planning to issue once the Bill is passed to be "specific and directional" on the changes she seeks.

Another feature she is keen to see continue is for boards to have the right to continue to co-opt members - she herself is a co-opted member of Cockenzie primary board in East Lothian.

Ironically, given her subsequent spats with Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, that was where her involvement in parent politics began nine years ago. The school board summoned a PTA into existence and Mrs Vass found herself chairing its first meeting.

"I have always been passionate about parents working with teachers and for their children's learning," she says. She has two children aged 15 and 13 - and, she adds, one husband, one dog and two guinea pigs.

Mrs Vass became a school board member five years ago and says: "I wanted to find out more about what was happening in schools." She rejects the assertion that parents are only interested in the education of their own children.

"I have always been interested in the big picture," she says. "Despite what is often said, a lot of parents are also interested in the big picture and they are not just concerned for their school because their children are there -although, of course, many start from that point."

She herself is a case in point, continuing on the board as a co-opted member, even although her children are now in secondary.

Whatever the future of school boards and their national voice, Mrs Vass is under no illusions that she has her work cut out to make the SSBA more broadly based to be that voice. A third of local authorities, including Edinburgh, have no representative on the executive board, and she intends to try to put that right. She points out, however, that school board members are volunteers and it would be a significant undertaking for many to play a role at national level as well.

As for those parents described euphemistically as "hard to reach", who are a key priority for the Education Minister, Mrs Vass says: "This is not a new issue for us. We have always been aware of it."

Training for parents will continue to be an issue, she believes, even with the less formal system of parent involvement proposed. "This will not be lessened by the lifting of statutory requirements: parent forums are still going to be involved in appointing heads and deputes, for example, and there are other training needs such as running effective meetings."

Meanwhile, the SSBA is busy consulting boards on the legislation - all boards, not just the 2,000 which are association members. We will then know whether the turkeys wish to vote for Christmas.

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