Don't write off the work that PTAs do

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Parents will make the time to help with school activities, but only those that interest them, says Judith Gillespie

A recent meeting to discuss both the proposals for parent forums and the new requirements for police checks arising from the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act (POCSA) was well attended by both school board and PTA folk.

As the lively discussion on the forums came to an end, the school board people got up and left, while those in the PTAs moved forward with pens and paper ready to take notes on the complicated POCSA requirements.

Reflecting on this, I realised how short-changed PTAs usually are. They are often identified as the "fundraising body" in schools, but this slightly demeaning term, which conjures up an image of hard-working mums providing teas and coffees, hides the complexity of what today's PTAs have to cope with.

PTAs are set up to support the school, but they are voluntary, independent bodies and what this means is made clear from the start: they have to take out and pay for school lets in order to run their fundraising activities.

Not for PTAs the indulgence or support of the local authority. Many parents grumble considerably about the need to pay for lets when they are just there to help the school, but they get on and do it anyway.

The events themselves are highly diverse and exhibit considerable imagination, not to mention enterprise - eat your heart out CBI and Scottish Enterprise. We have heard of quad-bike racing, abseiling and paint-balling as well as fashion shows, family quizzes and treasure trails.

Determined to Succeed is fully implemented by the PTA mum in full, fundraising mode.

However, fundraising is the easy bit. PTAs also have to understand their need for insurance - particularly in these increasingly litigious days.

They need public liability cover against any damages to people or property that they may cause (not for PTAs the legislative protection that school boards enjoy). They need personal accident insurance to protect their helpers against injury at an event and they need all-risks insurance to cover items that they buy or hire.

The need to understand legal and technical matters does not stop there.

They need to understand when they require a gaming licence to run a raffle or a special licence for the provision or sale of alcohol; whether they need a copyright licence for providing music; where liability lies if they bring in an outside performer; their duties as employers with regards to someone that they pay to run a club. The list is endless and often the ability to answer these technical matters is beyond the knowledge of headteachers and even education department officials.

On top of everything else, we now have the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act which is so complex that one senior official was led to wonder if it would make more sense if she viewed it standing on her head.

Just a fundraising body? PTAs should be so lucky.

So what of the other side of the coin at the open meeting - the departure of all the school board folk? During the evening, many of them had complained about parent "apathy" and lack of interest in what boards do. I countered this complaint, as I always do, with the observation that parents are not apathetic; rather, they reserve their efforts for things that are really important to them -like closing a school.

Parents' lack of interest in board matters was not evidence of apathy; instead it was proof that boards' discussions were of little importance to the majority of parents. This argument did not go down well with the school board folk who could not understand that other parents did not share their enthusiasm for management issues like school budgets and development plans.

However, come the end of the discussion on forums and the board folk left because a change to discussing POCSA - a matter of quite considerable importance to many parents - did not fall on to their radar screen of important matters. In leaving the meeting, the board folk exhibited the common parental trait of ignoring what is not directly relevant to them. Is this apathy? No, it is common sense.

So what's to be learnt from this apparent case of role reversal? Is it simply that PTAs can do serious while school boards can do apathy? No, the real message is that a wide range of parents can deal with complex issues but they are not prepared to spend time on matters that they don't think are relevant -their lives are too busy for that.

In terms of the proposed parent forums, it means that parents certainly have the skills to make them work, but that the forums won't involve more parents unless they are totally relevant to parents' interests.

Judith Gillespie is development manager with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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