Parent teacher associations are celebrating 50 years of vital support in schools. Alison Brace reports
You could be forgiven for thinking that parent teacher associations were an idea dreamt up by spin doctors. David Blunkett, Ruth Kelly, Kenneth Clarke - to name just a few former education secretaries - have extolled the virtues of parent power. But mums and dads were doing their bit for schools long before the policy wonks got involved.
Fifty years ago, the UK Parent Teachers' Association was set up to support parents who were helping out in schools - from serving tea and coffee at evening events to funding the school mini-bus.
This week, what is now known as the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations celebrated its half-century at Buckingham Palace in a ceremony hosted by the Duke of Edinburgh, a former president of the organisation. It has come a long way since 1956, when it was set up by an enterprising teacher with just a handful of members.
Today, the NCPTA has 13,000 member associations, a head office in Sevenoaks, Kent, and six regional officers. It has a small full-time staff and its services include training and advice on fund-raising and legal matters. It has also carved out a role as the collective voice of parents of school-aged children.
But the organisation is wary of overstating the power of parents. "The one thing that upsets the relationship between us and teachers is when people talk about parent power," said Margaret Morrissey, an NCPTA spokeswoman who has been with the organisation for 25 years.
"We have respect for our teachers - they are the experts. We always say to our associations that you need to be sure that you're being helpful - and whether what you are proposing is going to be of benefit to the school."
For the first time, the organisation has given awards of pound;1,000 to parents who have gone the extra mile and made a radical difference to the life of their school. Winners of the Gold Star awards range from parents who saved a Welsh secondary from closure to those who set up breakfast and after-school clubs at a Plymouth primary.
"It has been fascinating to get such a broad picture of parental involvement and a sense of the time and energy given by parents and schools," said Baroness Morris, the former education secretary who chaired the judging panel. "The winners were real examples of outstanding good practice."
A further 10 awards of pound;2,000 have gone to schools that devised projects to involve parents more. Researchers at Warwick university will evaluate the impact of the projects on pupil attainment.
"We know parental involvement is a - if not the - major contributor to pupil achievement and attainment," said Alma Harris, director of Warwick university's institute of education. "This is one of the most important things you could invest time in.
"Just involving them in peripheral activities is not a great use of time.
Parents get very unhappy with marginal involvement. Getting them involved in something very specific related to teaching and learning is a good use of time.
"This gives us a chance to find out what kind of parental involvement makes a difference. We want to see the impact of these projects on school development - and whether lessons can be learned."
The awards have shown just how much PTAs now contribute to schools. It is all a far cry from 1956 when Nicholas Gillett, a teacher, set up an association at the Bourneville school, in Birmingham, where he was a parent.
Schools in Greater London, Nottinghamshire and Cheshire were encouraged to set up associations and they later formed the UK Parent Teachers'
Association. In 1956, it became the Federation of PTAs.
Mr Gillett, now 92, handed the job to John Hayle, a headteacher, who ran the organisation in the 1970s from his office at Shears Green infant school in Gravesend, Kent. He raised its profile nationally and internationally and eventually found offices for it. By the early 1980s, the NCPTA had 2,500 members.
"We've had to work really hard to raise the profile of the association,"
said Mrs Morrissey. "But there is not another organisation like ours that is the voice of parents."
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, and one of the judges of the Gold Star awards, said: "Recently, we have been critical of some parents and their apparent lack of commitment to their children's education. The award-winners show the energy that many parents give to supporting their children's education, and schools in general."
Yet even after 50 years, 20 per cent of schools still have no PTA, and some heads are still hostile to the idea of parents' involvement.
"Some schools see parental involvement as a nuisance, but carefully guided involvement can have a massive impact on a school's achievements," said Professor Harris. "If schools were to recognise the extent to which simply involving parents more in meaningful activities could significantly contribute to achievement and attainment, they would look much more seriously at this."
* New model parents' army is on manoeuvres
* Mount Street infant and nursery school
The seeds of global friendship were sown at Mount Street by its PTA - and it made the school a little money too. A fifth of its pupils are the children of Nepalese soldiers serving with the Gurkhas. A similar proportion are from British army families, but traditionally the groups didn't mix very much.
The Gurkhas and British soldiers can spend up to two years in Brecon, Powys, while based at the town's infantry training centre.
Jane Hogg, a parent, suggested the "seed project" to the parent teachers'
association in a bid to get more families involved.
Each pupil was given pound;1 with the idea that they would do something enjoyable to raise money with support from their parents and family.
Some children bought buckets and sponges to wash cars, some bought ingredients to make cakes. Others made bookmarks and cards. Stalls were set up over three days for children to sell their wares.
"It pulled everyone together, " said Jan Lake, treasurer of the PTA.
"Lots of parents came and stayed after school. We did not raise a huge amount of money, but it just lifted the community spirit of the school."
The Nepalese families subsequently organised a curry evening and PTA membership has grown, with new members bringing in fresh ideas.
The pound;1,000 awarded to the school this week by the NCPTA will be put towards buying three new computers for the reception classes.
* Learning a new language of self-preservation
* Tolworth juniors
Twenty-two languages are spoken by pupils at Tolworth juniors, in Kingston upon Thames, pictured left, where 27 per cent of pupils speak English as a second language. It is a proportion that is growing all the time, said head Cathy Clarke.
Many pupils arrive with no English, but they were not the main concern for Mrs Clarke and the parent teacher association. The children pick up English quickly, but parents are often isolated by the language barrier.
"It has been painfully obvious that certain parents have not been involved," she said."We knew we had to be pro-active."
With the help of Catherine Giles, chair of the PTA and the governors, and Sara Warshawski, a parent and seasoned teacher of English as a second language, a plan was drawn up for language workshops to begin this autumn .
"We knew this was an area we had to work on, but it might not have happened as quickly if it hadn't been for the PTA's initiative," said Mrs Clarke. "We are lucky because we have very positive support from parents who have the school's and children's interests at heart. These are parents who give - not for their own children but for all the children in the school."
This week, the school received a learning, education and parental partnership (Leapp) award from the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, worth pound;2,000. The cash will help to put the language workshops scheme into practice.
The parents who most need support will be identified, and three-hour workshops during school hours will focus on home-school communications, homework, parents' evenings and PTA letters.
Mrs Warshawski, who has taught English in many countries, said: "I hope the project will enable parents who are on the outside because they cannot speak English to play a fuller part in school life."
Dylan Thomas community school
When 13-year-old Stephen Spencer sped through the door of his home last May in tears, his mother Sue wondered what had happened.
She listened in disbelief as he told her that his school, Dylan Thomas, in Swansea, was closing at the end of term and all 47 teachers were to be made redundant.
Overnight, she and her fellow members of the school's PTA went on the offensive to save their children's school.
"Up until then, we just raised money to pay for teas and coffees at parents' meetings and to pay for our NCPTA membership. Suddenly, that all changed," said Mrs Spencer, 42, who looks after her disabled husband John full-time.
"You are fighting as an individual for your own children's education. When you bring all those individuals together, that is so powerful."
The PTA raised parents' awareness of the school's plight, taking their campaign to the local media, councillors and the Welsh Assembly. More than 350 parents turned up for the first public consultation meeting.
"We badgered everybody and we just kept going, and we saw a community spirit we had not seen before," said Mrs Spencer, who with PTA chairman Sheila Lewis went to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday to receive the school's pound;1,000 award.
"You change and you find skills you did not know you'd got."
Pupils at the school wrote protest songs about the proposed closure, and the PTA organised for them to sing to the Welsh Assembly.
In November 2005, the school was told it would not close. From having a declining school roll, numbers are now up by 37 per cent for this September.
The PTA is working closely with its feeder primaries to make sure the school keeps a high profile. A member of the PTA is always on hand to show new parents and pupils around.
"The campaign got bigger and bigger, and not one of us can say how, but we did it - we actually saved our school," said Mrs Spencer, whose daughter Amy, 11, will start there this autumn.
"We used to scrape that money together for the NCPTA membership. Money from this award will pay for it for the next 10 years.
"This is a deprived area, but we are not deprived. Just because we live here doesn't mean we are in the gutter. We felt we were being picked on, that we were an easy target, and we didn't like that."