Bullied by the boss
It was a regular feature of my time at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council for parents to phone and ask: "Are we allowed to discuss . . ." and then add some innocuous subject like "traffic in the playground". Typically they were primary school parents from small schools. There was also the perennial question: "Who has the right to decide how to spend the money we raise?" It would seem that bullying heads are perfectly happy to have parents involved in the school as long as they ask no questions and hand over the money they raise for the head to spend. Parents can even earn heads' displeasure by asking them to account for how the money - often thousands of pounds - has actually been spent. One group of parents was outraged to find that money they thought they were raising for the children had been spent on new china for the staffroom.
Parents often give in to bullying tactics in order to protect their children, but sometimes they fight back. On one occasion, a man from the region and I were invited to a school, supposedly to discuss the value of school boards. As boards were then no longer controversial, I was surprised to find the hall packed to the gunwales.
We went through the formal meeting and then moved on to a local discussion - the real purpose of the meeting. At this point the headteacher invited "our visitors" to leave. We both opted to stay. The following discussion was all to do with the head's total ban on children bringing drinks to school for breaktime.
In an attempt to overcome this, parents had started coming along and handing drinks through the railings. This had resulted in war. A compromise was reached - children could bring drinks in cartons, but not in cans or bottles. Everyone was happy and I don't know if the school ever did set up a school board.
On another occasion, the clash was over the perennial problem of the dangers some parents cause when driving to pick up their children. A number of parents had asked the PTA to raise it with the head and she had gone ballistic, seeing it as a personal insult that anyone had dared to question any aspect of her running of the school. She immediately set about disbanding the PTA.
The parents asked me to a meeting and I witnessed the headteacher sitting the parents in a semi-circle in front of her, and then ticking them off like a group of naughty children. Her defence was that PTA interference was unnecessary, as her door was always open .
Devolved school management has given bullying heads more power to bully. In one case, where the clash was over who had the ultimate right to decide how the money raised by the PTA would be spent, the headteacher flexed her muscles by refusing the PTA any school lets.
The fact that even under devolved school management, the head is meant to operate within guidelines set down by the authority, was irrelevant. Moreover, in this case, the authority backed the head's determination to sack the PTA committee. So much for paper "parent policies".
Unless headteachers at school level have a genuine understanding of what "working in partnership" actually means, then paper policies are no more than just that.
There is a natural tendency for an authority to back the headteacher, because it is, after all, the employer. This is where Edinburgh's conciliation service is to be commended, for it genuinely does make an attempt to resolve problems between parents and schools. It recognises that no one has a monopoly on virtue in such disputes, but that it needs a clearly independent court of appeal for everyone to have confidence in the fairness of a settlement.
Another safeguard is a written constitution that covers potentially contentious issues such as accountability, how the committee is appointed, who has control of the money and how the organisation can be disbanded. When there is goodwill, any organisation can operate happily with only a vague awareness of rules and procedures. Once this has broken down, a written constitution can be a useful guide on who has what power and provide a valuable route out of any disagreement.
Fortunately for everyone, bullying headteachers are outnumbered by those who bend over backwards to involve parents fully in school affairs. However, it is necessary to recognise the existence of the bullying minority in order to deal with the problems they cause to parents and staff.
Judith Gillespie is a former convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.