The difference that parents can make;Letter

14th August 1998 at 01:00
I do not question Judith Gillespie's analysis of the sample responses to Parents as Partners (TESS, July 31). I do, however, question whether parents should be content with a merely consultative role in the education system. Perhaps the muted and deferential majority response arose simply because school boards have operated under such a vague and peripheral remit that they cannot envisage playing a more significant role and because the further powers they were offered were unattractive.

It needs to be stated unequivocally that parents should have a statutory role in their children's education. The teachers can forget about the children who leave their school but the parents never can. Moreover, teachers are not infallible. Nor is the education system anything like as good as the profession claims. I am exercised by many defects, most of them the target of Scottish Office reports over the past 10 years.

Can parents be a balancing force? Can they provide the engine for change? Yes, but with four provisos: they must be given statutory powers and the training to fulfil these duties, they must be elected by their fellow parents and they must be given administrative assistance by the school office.

What role should school boards have? I share the belief of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council that they should not have any executive role beyond participation in the selection of senior staff; they should have no power to veto or modify school policy. But the reason for that is not lack of time of lack of competence, but simply that it would be bad management practice to dilute the head's responsibility for running the school.

Divided leadership is worse than bad leadership.

The SPTC accepts a consultative role, possibly over all school-related matters. In my view that is too passive. It is not enough to be entitled to give advice when the head asks. The head may not ask. School boards need the power to ask questions and the right to receive answers and make recommendations.

This would be a scrutinising role on the model of Commons select committees. These do not take executive decisions but ask ministers for an account of their stewardship of office and make recommendations to the executive for reversal or change. The only matter outwith a board's remit should be the performance or behaviour of individual pupils or members of staff.

A board might ask the head to provide facts, figures, policies for improvement and progress reports on matters such as:

* Pupils entering P1 able to readcount up to 10, or with special problems.

* Pupils entering P3 unable to read.

* National testing levels achieved by each class compared with the previous year.

* Opportunities for sport and participation in team games.

* The number of teachers teaching S1 children.

* Criteria and rationale for the distribution of children among classes in each year.

* Subjects available at Standard grade and Highers.

* Numbers of pupils identified each year as needing special stimulus or extra support.

* Rates of absence.

* Incidence of bullying, vandalism, abuse of teachers by pupils or vice versa.

* The system of reporting to parents on their child's progress and effort.

None of this should be felt to be threatening. All these issues are covered in that elusive, costly and opaque Scottish Office document How good is our school?

The SPTC claims that parents do not have the expertise or time to take on more than a consultative role. I have tried to address the lack of expertise though I detect that the profession has very low expectations of parents' competence. As for time, it is astonishing how much time people give to voluntary work to support any cause that concerns them.

Parents are deeply concerned about their children's education. I believe that it is not lack of time or confidence in the professionals that has deterred them from seeking a more active role, but the disappointing contribution that school boards have made so far and the unsatisfactory alternatives in the green paper.

David Hill

Relugas Road, Edinburgh

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