Go-ahead for school boards
Judy Waterman, the Executive's team leader on the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Bill, told the first of the public consultation meetings, held in Inverness on Monday night, that the proposed new arrangements for parent forums were intended to be "more flexible representation".
Parents, she said, can decide how to set up their own forums and these can adapt and change. "This will build on the best practice that we have already," she said, adding: "If people find that the current school board is satisfactory, then the forum can continue in that form."
The consultation process for the abolition of school boards got off to a stuttering start in Inverness, the first of 12 consultation meetings to be held throughout Scotland. Around 30 parental group representatives took part in the seminar, organised by the Scottish Civic Forum.
Representatives came from only the Inverness and Black Isle areas, despite the meeting being billed as a chance for parents in the north of Scotland to have their say. Several complained about the lack of notice of the meeting, and also the paucity of information about the Bill's content.
Ms Waterman told representatives that enough copies of a summary of the Bill's contents had been distributed to every school to give every family a copy.
She rehearsed the arguments for the Bill, which aims to improve parental representation and abolish the legislative restrictions in the 1988 School Boards Act. "The main aim of the 1988 Act was to get parents to take responsibility for the management of the school and to get schools to opt out of local authority control," she said.
"However, less than 1 per cent of parents serve on school boards at any one time, and 11 per cent of Scottish schools have no school board."
The Executive has commissioned Aberdeen University to carry out a study of best practice among parent representative groups across Scotland, and this will be available for other groups to follow.
Despite the Executive's assurances on the right of parents to shape their own involvement of choice, some felt they were about to be deprived of a representative body that worked well at present, and made their views clear as the meeting broke up into three discussion groups.
One parent said: "This is reinventing the wheel. Our school board already works well and there is good feedback between parents and headteacher. It is difficult to get people to run the board and it is also difficult to get people involved in fundraising.
"There is a danger that, with forums, parents will come along simply to represent the interests of their own child and it will end up being less representative than a school board."
Another said: "This is a way of breaking up the power and influence of school boards. At the moment, there is a national school boards association. There doesn't seem to be any provision for a national forum.
It has taken long enough for parents to engage in school boards and understand the process. This will destabilise that and waste many years of effort while people get used to the new forums."
But there were also some misgivings about school boards. One parent observed: "School boards don't seem to elect members from a broad range of people. Some of them have too much power and should not be involved in interviews for staff. You get people on the boards with their own agendas and they should not have the power they have at the moment."
Several parents found the election process daunting, particularly the requirement to provide a personal statement. One said: "It is difficult promoting your own virtues. Maybe more parents would get involved if they did not have to do this.
"It tends to be the same group of people getting involved in all these things and there is a feeling that, if you don't have a degree, you should not get on to the school board. It is shocking to see how few people vote in board elections."
In one of the groups, several complaints were aired, including headteachers who blocked initiatives and the restricted choice of parents hand-picked to meet inspectorate teams.
This group was told by Ms Waterman that parental involvement will become an integral part of school inspections once the Bill is enacted.
She said: "The quality of parental involvement will be assessed by the inspectorate. If there is none or very little, the headteacher will have to show what has been done to seek involvement."
One suggestion, voiced by several parents, was that each school year and social class should be represented on the new forums.
Another parent with an interest in special needs education added that this could be taken further by having groups within school forums to share information and ideas on issues such as autism.
"You find that often it is parents who have done the research and who come to the teachers with information because teachers do not have the time," the parent observed. "Innovative ideas could be shared in this way. That would also get round headteachers who deliberately block taking any action, just because they don't know how to handle it."
After the meeting, Ms Waterman said: "If school boards are working well, parents can draw up a constitution to keep what they've got. Where schools are not happy, they will have the flexibility to have something different.
The Minister wants to build on the best of what we have at the moment."
Bruce Robertson, Highland Council's director of education, welcomed what he believed would be "a new chapter" in the relations between parents, schools and education authorities.
"The new legislation is trying to ensure that more parents can see a role for themselves in working with their local school," he said.
"Given the number of small rural primaries in our area, the legislation gives us the opportunity for a flexible approach suited to each situation."
Mr Robertson said Highland would be holding meetings in the next few weeks throughout the council area to give parents a chance to express their views on the proposals.