The worst seems to be over for school boards, writes Esther Read, but even now it's not clear what their role should be
Whatever the results of the current round of school board elections, serious questions about the future of this version of parental involvement remain.
On the face of it, the decline in support that characterised the boards' first few years of existence has now been halted. In the first round of elections held in 1989, 80.4 per cent of eligible schools managed to form a board. By 1992 that figure had dropped to 77 per cent and by 1994 it was lower still at 75 per cent. By May 1996, the position had stabilised at 74.9 per cent.
But, as Fred Forrester, depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, says: "That represents a substantial minority of schools without a board. Even more significant is the fact that a majority of schools where a board exists have a body elected without a ballot. They have simply managed to attract a given number of candidates equal to the number of vacant posts. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that underlying all of this is a degree of parent apathy."
Changes in the rules affecting the viability of boards have also bolstered the figures. Originally, a board that failed to attract sufficient parent members during the initial election and the subsequent byelection would be disestablished. Now it is possible for such a board to continue until the next round of elections with co-opted parent members - a system that does not accord with most people's view of democracy.
According to Ann Hill, chief executive of the Scottish School Board Association, the problems can be traced back to the initial launch of the school board concept. "Boards were sold under the banner of parent power. It was parent power versus teacher power. The majority of parents who stood - myself among them - did so because we didn't agree with the original proposals. Even after these were diluted, things like the power to opt schools out of local authority control remained and we wanted to prevent that.
"However, those negative beginnings had consequences. First, there was a lack of support from the local authorities. This was particularly true with regard to funding and to training.
"At the same time some boards, having rejected the powers on offer, began to feel they didn't have sufficient alternative powers. They felt frustrated and, often, just plain confused as to what their role was. Only gradually did the idea of what true partnership might mean begin to emerge."
As things stand, it is often the headteacher - officially just an adviser to the board - who determines the success or failure of that partnership. As one current board member puts it: "At each meeting our headmaster provides us with a lengthy report of what's been going on in the school. The trouble is it really only contains what he wants us to hear and there's nothing much we can do about that."
By contrast, Pat Trenaman, past chair and current clerk to the board of Hermitage Academy, Helensburgh, reports a more positive experience: "Our board has very much a consultative role. We're drawn in at the planning stages of any development - let's say, a new homework policy - and our views are sought. We're not being asked to rubber-stamp a fait accompli. It's real partnership.
"Perhaps a little unusually, we've also extended this notion of partnership to the pupils in the school. We've always had a sixth-year pupil as one of our co-opted members. Previously he or she was nominated by the headmaster. Now the pupils themselves select their representative."
Ann Hill believes developments like these need to be built on and that the time is ripe. "When our association began in 1991, we had just 200 members. We now have 1,600, and more people are asking us to help solve their problems - which have arisen because lack of training has left them unsure about their role.
"These cover anything from difficulties encountered when parents sit on appointment committees for senior promoted staff - a very important part of a board's function - to problems that arise when people mistakenly think it must be their job to take up complaints against individual teachers or pupils.
"The fact that people are coming forward with their difficulties is a good sign. It certainly doesn't suggest apathy.
"As an association, we are now able to offer training on a national basis. This has been developed in conjunction with the Scottish Office, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Association of Directors of Education, and will be available not just to board members but to teachers, headmasters and local authority representatives as well. To date only two local authorities, East Lothian and South Lanarkshire, have still to take up the option of such training."
Encouragement for school boards has also come from the new Government. Education minister Brian Wilson spoke at the annual conference of SSBA shortly after taking office in May and affirmed his support for the concept. His party's consultation paper, Every Child is Special, published in March 1996, suggested a changed but enhanced role for boards with a wider membership base. A discussion document on what is actually proposed is due out later this year.
The biggest problem is likely to relate to the funding of boards. The SSBA intends to become self-financing in the very near future, relying on income derived from membership fees and training (paid for by local authorities), the sale of publications and business sponsorship. Will local authorities, strapped for cash, really feel that school board training should take its place alongside, say, the need to improve and maintain school buildings?
It is easy for a government to support a school board network that is in broad agreement with its policies, but the biggest success of school boards in recent years has been in lobbying government on behalf of parents, for example over the introduction of national testing or the abolition of the education directorate at the time of de-regionalisation.
Is government, either national or local, really ready to subsidise such a potential thorn in its flesh? That, ultimately, will be the true test of partnership.
Scottish School Board Association, tel: 01387 260428