Face painting and beard shaving;Parent's Diary

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Hugh Dougherty has spent considerable time and energy as a council press officer encouraging schools to find ways to be enterprising and publicise themselves.

But as a PR man and a parent he can be deflated by the results

I am delighted to report that my six-year-old's primary school lacks bounce. That is not the opinion of a member of the Inspectorate writing in the plain English that is the proclaimed style for passing a verdict on school performance. It is simply a sigh of relief from a parent and producer of children for the education process.

The bounce in question was to have been provided by a rubber castle erected in the school hall. My daughter was to bounce on it for a minute - sponsored of course - to raise cash for school funds.

It was all the work of the parents' association. This august body of women seems to regard its main purpose as inventing ever stranger and more ridiculous schemes for raising money, preferably through the medium of a sponsored event in which the children go through metaphorical - or actual - hoops.

The adult world pays up in speechless admiration, or perhaps because we've been handbagged.

The invitation to join the bouncy fun came the same day as our much inflated council tax demand. Perhaps this coloured my attitude. Or perhaps it was the announcement in the parents' association newsletter that the revenue from the bouncy castle would go to provide essential education services at the school.

The resulting explosion, witnessed by my wife, was really a reaction not to an inflated castle but to the inflated number of demands for money from the school.

But in truth our school is no worse than others. Today there is an obsession with raising cash for both school funds and charity.

I am sure that it has got much worse since our first son set foot in primary 16 years ago. And the position has unquestionably worsened since I went to school 42 years ago. In those distant days we collected once a week for what were known as the "black babies" - politically incorrectly. We tossed the odd coin to a missionary priest or nun visiting the school. But the only real cash in hand was deposited in the teacher's dinner ticket tin on a Monday morning.

Since then appeals for this and that have grown exponentially. Several years behind the education press desk in the late Strathclyde taught me that our daughter's school has a relatively mild case of sponsorship syndrome. I had heidie after heidie calling in with what they saw as "news", namely a sponsored silence that had raised such and such for so and so.

One day after scanning our cuttings from the weekly newspapers, I came to the conclusion that no children were actually being taught anything anywhere in the region. In every one of Strathclyde's 1,200-plus primaries, they were sitting stock still and stumm, notching up another sponsored silence.

Of course quiet children are hardly a matter for parental objections. There are worse obsessions.

I think of sponsored pancake tossing and face painting. I remember "getting lost in the hills" walks which called me to weekend duty as the press inquiries flooded in.

I think of sponsored beard shaving by both teachers and senior pupils and - horror of horrors - one establishment's leg waxing wheeze, which at least allowed women to join in with the football boys.

Much contorted thought must go into these excesses. It could surely be turned to better use in curriculum development than in increasingly bizarre schemes for ritual humiliation, creative suffering and misplaced bravery.

Ringing up the cash is the received wisdom in schools these days, a result no doubt of learning the lessons of entrepreneurialism and being continuously strapped for it.

Yet an army of local newspaper editors and photographers, not forgetting dutiful press officers, are close to shooting themselves if one more primary head phones up, usually around four o'clock on a Friday, to seek publicity for yet another giant cheque handover picture of the kind Terry Wogan affects excitement about at annual Pudsey Bear time.

School boards and parents' associations should take a serious look at themselves if their major activities have degenerated into fundraising. Running school fayres, race nights, clothes parties and sponsored events should not be their raison d'etre.

I seem to remember rhetoric about partnership between parents and teachers, discussion of the curriculum and the good governance of the school and the education of its pupils. That is what the Government's current consultation paper focuses on, not parents as cash cows.

I know that many parents actually enjoy the fundraising. Still, I rejoice that the sponsored bounce has been called off. The PA is deflated. But I fear the next of its missives will advertise a sponsored sponsoring ideas session. Silently, and with no money changing hands on the matter, count me out.

Hugh Dougherty, still a local government public relations manager, writes in a personal capacity.

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