Jim O'Brien on Labour's proposals for involving parents in running schools
What a difference a decade makes. The recent call for more parent participation in school education has not generated the degree of resistance experienced in 1987 when a national outcry followed Michael Forsyth's proposals for school boards. Mr Forsyth's move to replace rather than reform school councils with school boards was regarded as too radical, especially the "ceiling powers" designed to give boards greater executive functions. An informal alliance of parents and teachers agitated against the proposals, against Mr Forsyth's consumerist attitudes, against the managerial role being foisted upon parents, against the parental majority, against vetos over school spending and against the limited time allowed for consultation.
Now everything has changed. The mass of parents appear indifferent to the work of boards until an important local issue, such as a threatened school closure, emerges. Trust in professional expertise to manage schools remains predominant and the relative autonomy of headteachers has been enhanced. Labour's pre-election education document, Building Scotland's Future, described boards as a "top-down failure" and proposed replacing them with school commissions. In contrast, two-thirds of the latest consultative paper, entitled Parents as Partners, is devoted to strengthening and building on the work of boards which it claims "have been successful in forging partnerships at school level".
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, seeks views on how partnership between parents and schools can contribute to raising standards and making schools more effective. Lessons about consultative exercises appear to have been learnt. There are few firm proposals apart from a preference for retaining a voting majority for parents, and this seems appropriate. However, hints appear that the Government would prefer some increase in powers. Interest in the proposals has led to an additional print-run of the consultative document.
Many reasons can be cited to support the establishment, continuation and development of school boards: to seek greater local accountability, effectiveness and enhanced standards from education professionals; to extend local democracy via elected representatives; to provide an overt role for parents in policy-making and school management; to build better relationships and partnerships between parents and teachers. If a bold policy of accepting the most ambitious of the paper's ideas was to be pursued, then I believe that boards could have a valid role without threatening proper professionals interests. Without such a bold approach, boards are dead.
For boards to date, an important but often unanswered question has been: "What are we here to do?" Sadly, by not addressing the fundamental issue of purposes, the consultative paper potentially adds to existing confusion.
Let's beef up the boards. For example, it is suggested that they might become involved in developing and monitoring school policies. This seems sensible. It could be argued that the monitoring (accountability) function should be central to school board activities. Or the board might have the power of approval which is, in effect, a veto. Experience over the approval of spending per capita plans demonstrates little board disagreement with headteachers.
Citing specific areas of policy - discipline, attendance, bullying, homework, school dress and school hours - could be limiting. A broad-brush coverage of not only the school's development plan but any major shift of policy or any aspect board members feel needs attention could be subject to scrutiny and subsequent monitoring. Vague terms such as "have responsibility for" need to be replaced by more precise actions such as advising, monitoring, approving or deciding.
A formal consultative role for the board is envisaged in relation to "some aspects of the curriculum", but no powers. There is reference to the national curriculum framework and its implementation but transfer of responsibility for this to boards or parents is not envisaged. School board views collected systematically could provide a widespread source of advice and viewpoints to the Government and its national agencies. Could boards not have responsibility or even executive powers over homework or indeed control of ways by which home and school co-operate over wider curricular issues (social, moral and health education) which constitute an overlap curriculum?
The Scottish Office asks if there should be any move to "bring a greater range of views and expertise to the board". I do not believe widening membership is necessary. Headteacher membership is superficially attractive as it appears to support partnership, but headteacher associations in 1987 recognised the potential difficulties this would create and rejected it. What will social workers and health officials bring to board membership? There already exists the facility to co-opt to specialist subcommittees of the board and this could be utilised much more.
Election difficulties have been recognised, including the reluctance of parents to stand for contested elections. Parent office-bearers of parent-teacher associations becoming ex officio board members could be the answer and would certainly bind boards and PTAs more closely. Representing their constituency has been difficult for board members to date and closer links here might result in more interest in the work of the boards. The skills of representing would be an important area for development of training.
Teacher professionals are now less worried about an increase in the status of parents in the "management partnership" for schools than they were at the time of Mr Forsyth's legislation. Headteacher training in the past decade combined with the experience of audit, school development planning and devolved school management have resulted in heads being much more self-confident and alert to meaningful partnership benefits. While demands will be placed on the professionalism of teachers, a fuller role for boards will enhance, not erode, that professionalism. Parents will still look to teachers for professional advice when making decisions about their children's education.
Specific questions on functions, membership, funding and wider relationships reflect the Scottish Office agenda. Boards and individuals should be encouraged to make suggestions beyond the questions posed. The Scottish School Board Association has issued an edition of its newsletter, Grapevine, in the form of a questionnaire mirroring the questions in the document. This includes a range of additional questions and may form part of the association's response .
Perhaps vagueness is a genuine device in the consultative process so that suggestions can be encouraged. If so, respondents should be as precise as possible in their response. For my part, I consider that boards should have a stronger role in monitoring central (especially educational) aspects of the school, a greater facility to use the veto and a training scheme to assist board members to exercise their potential influence.
Jim O'Brien is vice-principal of Moray House Institute of Education. He writes here in a personal capacity.