Chaotic search for parent forum

19th June 2009 at 01:00

A Scottish Government conference designed to set up a national parents' forum descended into near chaos, with delegates struggling even to agree when the new body should meet.

There had been murmurs of approval when Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop told an audience of about 100 parent representatives from throughout Scotland that the Government backed a national forum whose priorities would be entirely up to parents.

The event went downhill after she left, when parents were divided into small groups and asked to discuss a series of questions about the new body's potential make-up.

It proved a struggle to get past the first question, which asked whether delegates agreed to a first meeting in September or October. At one table, there was vehement opposition to a meeting any time this year, because it would not allow time to share information with colleagues.

When national parental involvement co-ordinator Lorraine Sanda surveyed the feedback and declared that most seemed happy with an autumn meeting, some shouted disapproval. "You're pushing the boat way ahead," said one, and the conference started spinning out of control.

There were exasperated reactions from others who felt it should take place as soon as possible. Mrs Sanda took an impromptu vote, with just over half agreeing to a late-October meeting. But many voiced disapproval and, amid the commotion, the poll had passed one woman by. "What's the hands-up for?" she asked, to a roomful of laughter.

There was deadlock when the new body's priorities came up. Some refused to commit to any until they knew more about the forum; others rolled their eyes, and one increasingly-vexed delegate shouted out that the first meeting was merely to form a constitution.

People were becoming upset as bad feeling spilled over: one woman took offence at the forthright approach of a man dismissing her plea to delay the first meeting, and mistakenly interpreted Mrs Sanda's reassurances that officials should not be "messing around" as a personal insult.

Even the conciliatory approach of Mrs Sanda, who spent 17 years in the diplomatic service, could not appease some. One woman, cynical about any Government help for parents, reacted to Mrs Sanda's measured assessments with melodramatic sighs and muttered oaths, before declaring: "I've had enough - it's too much for me," then leaving.

There was confusion about the forum's priorities. Some described woolly qualities rather than issues. When it was suggested curricular change might be a priority, an indignant west of Scotland delegate said: "I know nothing about this," and insisted he would not consider it a priority until he knew more. "What is Curriculum for Excellence?" asked another.

More knowledgeable was a delegate from Sustrans, a charity which builds paths for walkers and cyclists, although some were puzzled about why she was there.

After separate attempts to quell the unrest by Mrs Sanda, the Government's John Bissett, and Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, the conference ended abruptly with the only consensus being that there should be an autumn meeting.

There were complaints afterwards about the Government's handling of the event, which threw light on another schism: some thought Government direction might be needed after all, while others complained the forum already felt "like a top-down thing".

Mrs Gillespie said things got out of hand because delegates were talking at cross purposes. Ms Hyslop had indicated that the new body would simply be a forum, administrated by the Government, into which parents could feed their views, but many believed a more formal organisation was being proposed.

"The discussion in the afternoon was never going to be easy, with people coming with very different backgrounds, histories and perspectives," said Mrs Sanda, who stressed there was general support - backed up in a study of parents' views - for a national forum.

"Overall, we should not lose sight of the fact that it was a really successful day."

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