Angela Constance has wasted no time in fulfilling a promise she made to an audience of parents last month. Once a week, the Minister for Children and Young People holds an in-depth phone conversation with a parent council chair from somewhere in Scotland.
The minister's new commitment, made at the National Parent Forum of Scotland annual conference in October, is the most recent of a number of Government moves to give parents more of a say in their children's education.
Only last month, the Government published the latest in a series of information leaflets for parents. School inspection reports now have to be shared with the head of the parent council, so that a plan for improvement can be drawn up between them and the headteacher. And Education Scotland has launched a resource aiming to get schools to review their strategies for involving parents.
The reasons for the Government's focus on parental involvement are straightforward. Academic research, such as that by leading education researcher Professor Charles Desforges and his colleague Alberto Abouchaar in 2003, shows the impact parental involvement can have.
"Each study", their literature review concluded, "showed (among other things) that parental involvement was associated to a major degree with pupil attainment after all other factors have been taken into account."
Additionally, the pressure put onto schools by Curriculum for Excellence leaves more room for parents to be involved, and creates more need for that to happen.
"Parents are a child's first teacher, they are the single biggest influence on a child's educational achievements," Ms Constance told TESS. "If we need to do the best by our children, we need to be focused on parents and families, and parental involvement in education is a very big part of that agenda."
In terms of legislation, the Government push to get parents involved began with the Labour-LibDem administration through the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006. It looked at home school partnerships, and the measures needed to support learning at home, and established parent councils to replace the school boards which had, up to that point, been involved in the management of schools in Scotland.
The aim was that, eventually, parent councils were to exist in all schools and all local authorities. Few doubt that the move was politically motivated by antipathy towards school boards, which had their foundation in earlier Tory attempts to push schools to "opt out" of local authority control some 20 years ago.
But complicated and burdensome systems to elect school boards were also a major factor and the new legislation sought to make parental representation a more straightforward process.
Figures provided by the Scottish Government show this aim has almost been reached less than half a decade on. There is now parent council representation in 96 per cent of local authority schools: 98 per cent in primary, 99 per cent in secondary and 62 per cent in special schools.
Many parents had felt school boards were not welcoming and inclusive enough, says the Government's national parental involvement co-ordinator, Lorraine Sanda.
The introduction of the Parental Involvement Act is also seen as a pivotal moment by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC). Its executive director, Eileen Prior, told TESS. "It was the point, I think, where it was recognised in legislation that parents bring a lot to schools and their children's education, and there is a value in widening out beyond a few select parents who would sit on that management board."
The introduction of parent councils, elected representatives of each school's parent forum - made up of all parents - has led to an increase in formal involvement by parents in parent bodies.
Making the Difference, a report by Consumer Focus Scotland into the impact of the Parental Involvement Act, showed that 11 per cent of parents were involved in parent councils in 2009, compared to two per cent who were on school boards in 2005.
Overall informal parental involvement in schools had also increased, from 31 per cent in 2005 to 35 per cent in 2009. More recently, the SPTC has seen its membership level increase to 1,800 members, mostly parent councils, from 1,600 last year.
Establishing a national, more structured representation for parents based on parent councils, who would be able to get involved in policy making, however, wasn't as straightforward.
In June 2009, TESS reported from the inaugural meeting held to establish what would become the National Parent Forum of Scotland. In a chaotic atmosphere, some 100 parent representatives from schools across Scotland struggled to agree on basics such as when the new body should meet, or even what its priorities should be.
Mrs Sanda says the initial struggles were inevitable when trying to create a new institution which took into account the strong views and varying backgrounds of dozens of parent representatives from all across Scotland. It was also underestimated, she says, how much commitment and involvement would be required, and what kind of person should be in charge of the national forum. Iain Ellis, the current chair, who has been in post since March, is the third in the body's two-year history.
"We had an interesting ride to get there," Mrs Sanda admits. "But we got there in the end and I think it is a huge achievement. What we have is unique. It is strongly based on parents who want to be involved in their school and who then have the will to actually do something at a national level. We can genuinely engage with parents at every level and allow them to be involved in decision making."
There are now parent representatives, provided by the National Parent Forum of Scotland, on the CfE management board, the Rural Schools Commission, and a group assessing the impact of the additional support for learning policy.
Parents are also at the table of the numeracy network, outdoor learning network, the working group that is following up the Donaldson Report and the group examining devolved schools management. "These are firsts in all of those," says Mrs Sanda.
When the National Forum held its first online conference in September, in the run-up to its second annual conference, it reached 2,000 hits on the Engage for Education website, making it the second most popular event in the history of the site.
"I think it shows that people want parents to get involved," says Mr Ellis. "What used to happen years ago is that you would get involved in the end product. You would see the draft, but by the time you see the draft it's too late: you need to sit at the table from day one."
Mother-of-three Joanna Murphy, from Strathbungo, has represented parents on the CfE management board for about a year. The Glasgow representative on the National Forum says the cuts to education budgets have led to more parents wanting to be involved: "In the straitened times that we are facing, people are coming out of the woodwork because things are starting to be cut, and when things are starting to be cut, you notice the difference. That gets everyone's level of activism up a bit."
Representing parents as part of a national panel of experts had initially been "quite daunting", she says. It had also proven a challenge to represent all parents, rather than just her personal views. "When I say things, I try my very best not to be specific. This is not about my children, or even Glasgow; it is about Scotland."
Mrs Murphy does feel she is being taken seriously by the experts on the CfE management board: "I have nothing but good experiences at the meetings; people talk to me and treat me like I'm one of their equals. I have obviously got myself up to speed, and they can see I know what I am talking about. I am not afraid to say things, and I have put in my tuppence worth."
Ms Constance says that parents who are part of the policy-making process often have a "more direct focus on children".
"A parent's interest when they are at the table, purely and simply as a parent, is quite unadulterated. Good parental involvement can be the wake- up call that keeps all our feet firmly on the ground."
At school level, the role of parents in CfE should mean increased opportunities for involvement in curricular events, Mr Ellis says. "If you have a school with 50 kids, you may only have five or six teachers, but you will have 100 parents. Think of the expertise these parents bring in that you can use for CfE.
"There is more enthusiasm to get involved, there are also a lot more opportunities for parents to get involved. And if schools use that properly, it is a tremendous opportunity for them. The schools that don't are losing out."
However, Eileen Prior stresses that not all schools have allowed parents the role awarded to them by the new curriculum: "If you look at CfE, parents are supposed to be key partners, but we know that that is just not the case."
Parents still have a long road ahead to proper, meaningful involvement at all levels and across Scotland, she cautions.
"I think we could be kind and say we are moving in the right direction, but I think there has to be a fundamental shift in culture within local government and within schools, because we see the incredible difference between some local authorities and some schools in the way in which parents are involved - or not involved, to be frank."
How involved parents are able to be currently depends on the commitment of the local authority and the headteacher at each individual school, she says. "There is a lot of work to be done about leadership in schools and opening up the school, so they begin to realise that they don't always know best. Education is about children and families; they have to be involved, they have to have a say. Education can't function in a bubble, where parents are kept at bay."
Charlotte Harris from Kirkwall, in Orkney, has been chair of Papdale Primary parent council for more than two years. She says the successful work of her council has been enabled by a headteacher and business manager who are "really supportive and keen for us to be involved".
"I think it would be quite difficult maybe for parents and parent council members if you didn't have the support of the headteacher. It's very crucial."
"We still have within education that `professionals know best' attitude," says Mrs Prior. "Parents are seen, albeit to a lesser extent, as a threat - folk to treat with a great deal of caution. They are not seen as a resource, as a group who can support the school not just in terms of money, providing practical support to schools, but in terms of their support for their children."
Mr Ellis was reluctant to be pinned down on the question of whether schools took parents seriously. "What I will say is that there are open schools and closed schools. The open schools are the ones where parents are involved, and I think they benefit."
There are some schools where parents don't feel very welcome, says Mrs Sanda. But she adds: "On the whole, there are very few teachers and schools I have come across who don't see the value in involving parents."
Teacher and headteacher representatives say the profession welcomes positive, meaningful involvement from parents. However, parental involvement can be made difficult and its reputation tainted by a minority of "maverick parents".
"Where they come with a particular axe to grind - that is where parental involvement can be given a bad name," says Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the EIS teaching union. "That is very unfortunate, because the education of children is a joint venture between parents and schools, so they should work hand in glove towards a common end. But sadly, there are some who come to parental involvement really waging a campaign of one kind or another."
Engaging with parents is often easier at primary level, adds School Leaders Scotland general secretary Ken Cunningham: "Most secondary headteachers have been very keen to have the parents on side and co- operating with the school. The basic principle is, the more involvement, the better."
The challenge is, however, for them to remain representative, rather than "solely pursuing their children's interests", he says.
But Mrs Prior counters: "You can't simply say that because there are a handful of maverick parents who are causing issues, we won't have anything to do with any of them. It just doesn't wash."
`GROTESQUE' PARENTAL SATISFACTION SURVEY
English education regulator Ofsted has launched a website inviting parents to give their views on their child's school.
On Parent View, parents answer a 12-question survey, with the results providing first-hand opinions to other parents who are trying to choose the right school for their child. Parents are not allowed to leave free text, as it was feared this would leave room for malicious comments, but instead respond to each question by choosing an answer from a range of "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".
Questions include: "My child is happy at this school"; "My child is well looked-after at this school"; "My child is taught well at this school"; "This school is well-led and managed"; and "This school responds well to any concern I raise". Results will be kept until the end of the year to allow for year-on-year comparisons.
EIS general secretary Ronnie Smith says transposing a complex area of public service provision, such as schooling, into the public domain in this way is "grotesque".
"It is populist nonsense, and doesn't provide any useful or meaningful information." He draws an analogy with the hotel ratings website TripAdvisor; there are ways for parents to raise concerns, but a public ratings system website like Parent View is "entirely wrong".
"I really do hope that we never get to the point where we judge the quality of our school provision on that kind of basis. It lacks reliability and validity," he says.
A spokesman for Education Scotland said he was not aware of any plans to set up a similar website in Scotland.
A CPD RESOURCE TO MAKE THE MOST OF PARENTAL INPUT
A CPD resource has been designed by Education Scotland to help teachers and headteachers reflect on parental involvement at their school and develop strategies for improvement.
The activities can be used by the whole school, or by key groups of teachers. As they are available in easily adapted formats, they can be adjusted to allow for a discussion of relevant issues with the school's parent council, or other parent groups.
The resource was piloted earlier this year by Glasgow City Council. "It's a very useful resource for teachers and parents," quality information officer Kathryn Farrow told TESS, adding it provided a clear structure for training sessions and informed debate within institutions on what parental involvement was and how it could be improved.
She had piloted it in two schools in Glasgow, to allow them to reflect on their practice with regards to parental involvement, and had most recently used parts of the resource when training nurture group teachers, who often had to deal with more difficult-to-reach parents.
Original headline: All for one: How home and school can work together