How to make friends and influence schools

14th October 2005 at 01:00
School boards are out; parent councils are in. The change will be not just in name but in approach, encouraging parents to become more involved in school issues through a more flexible, friendly attitude, writes Douglas Blane.

The Scottish Executive, in its efforts to replace school boards with something more open and accessible to parents, has encountered a barrage of criticism, much of it from existing boards, whose resistance to change was forcibly put during consultations on the draft Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Bill.

School boards work well, came the written response from hundreds of them around the country, so why scrap us? It is a good question, but despite the onslaught of articulate objections, school boards are now out and parent councils are in. The consultation is over and the Bill has been published essentially intact.

It means that a lot more talking to the Executive remains to be done, says Caroline Vass, president of the Scottish School Board Association. "We wish the (Education) Minister had listened just a little bit harder to the thousands of parents who are telling us there was nothing wrong with the existing system that a few tweaks here and there could not have put right."

The SSBA and its members were not alone in their opposition.

Education authorities were unenthusiastic. Edinburgh, for example, believes the rigour of school boards is essential if "representative parents are to continue to be involved in key decision-making".

Schools were generally lukewarm, while the Headteachers' Association of Scotland raised the possibility of "alienating parents who have worked hard" for their school community.

It is a danger, agrees Leonard Taylor, headteacher of St Machar Academy in Aberdeen, which was praised by school inspectors for its excellent links with parents.

"We are going to continue with a school board if we can, under a different name," he says. "The Minister has said the legislation allows boards to do that, and the feeling of our parents is very much 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'."

The problem is that boards tend to work well only for schools and parents who participate in them, the Executive says. This, however, is only a tiny fraction of all parents; three-quarters have no contact with their school board at all, research shows. Fully a third of parents do not know who is on their board or how to contact them.

Because children do best when parents are actively involved in their education, the central aim of the Bill is to provide a flexible structure that will encourage more parents to get more involved with their children's schools.

Boards are not "broken", in the Executive's view; they are simply the wrong vehicle for the job and no amount of "tweaks here and there" will change that. The formality, election process, even the name has been deterring parents.

"School board does sound daunting to me," says Isobel Morton, whose daughter attends Lawmuir Primary in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire. "I don't know much about boards, but I think they might be a bit staid and not much fun. I like the sound of Friends of Lawmuir much more."

There is no school board at Lawmuir Primary, as not enough parents wanted to take part, but the Friends are thriving. More broadly constituted than a parent-teacher association (it includes grandparents, for a start), they are a kind of prototype parent council, with a welcoming image, engaging name and inclusive ethos.

For parents with limited time, the freedom to help out when they can is an attractive feature, says Jayne Laird, who has two children at the school.

"I'm happy to get involved in fund-raising and supporting the school. But I wouldn't stand for a school board because I don't want to run the school.

I'm content with how that's done.

"Mind you, as a member of Friends of Lawmuir, I was asked to take part in an interview for a member of school staff. I was a bit worried at first but it went fine after I'd had some training."

"The formality of school boards would put me off," says Anita Henery, whose grandson attends Lawmuir Primary. "Maybe that's not the right word, though.

"The Friends has a constitution, meetings every month, minutes, an agenda, a diary of events. I just feel you wouldn't get the same sort of friendship, and partnership with teaching staff, in a board."

The lack of flexibility of school boards would be a problem for many parents, says Elaine Harrison, who has two children at Forthview Primary in Edinburgh, as well as a 5-month-old baby. "As soon as I had kids, I decided I wanted to be involved with the school. It had to be flexible, though.

Most parents have a lot going on in their lives. Maybe something happens with the kids and you have to work around it, or you can't get a babysitter. That's the thing about being a parent: you have children!"

Forthview Primary has a school board and a Friends of Forthview group, and submitted a joint response during consultations on the new Bill. On the Executive's key question about whether school boards should be replaced by a more flexible system determined by parents, they responded positively.

"Everybody should be able to have their say, not just a few. Elections put people off being on a school board. The new forums will make it easier for more folk to be involved."

This was the main reason for forming the Friends of Forthview in the first place, says the headteacher, Sheila Laing. "We have a lot more people who want to be involved, to get really stuck in, than can be on the school board."

A persistent refrain in responses to the draft Bill was that the Executive was wrong in thinking school boards were the main barrier to parental involvement: most parents have neither the time nor the inclination to do more. There is some truth in this, say parents and staff at schools where parental involvement is thriving.

Others feel school boards need to be more parent-friendly.

"Half the parents don't even know who's on the school board," says Denise Foley, a mother of two Forthview pupils and an active member of the Friends. "I would like to stand, but I just don't feel the board is parent-friendly."

The school, on the other hand, definitely is, which is why so many parents are keen to get involved, she says. "It is a very welcoming place, and so different to the school my kids were at before, where you had to make an appointment to see the head and weren't allowed to talk to teachers.

"My son is now in Primary 7, so I am wondering which secondary school to send him to. I remember when my daughter, who is now 22, went to secondary.

It was like: 'Parents, no! You stay out there while we get on with teaching.' That's all wrong."

Schools have a duty to reach out beyond the minority of parents confident enough to put themselves forward, says Mr Taylor of St Machar Academy.

"There is a lot we can do to create good links with parents, like putting on special evenings for them on helping kids get through Standard grades, second year choices, work experience, the primary to secondary transition I "Throughout the session you can put on events that pull in a wide array of parents. You have to extend the hand of co-operation, encouragement and friendship to all parents. If you create the right atmosphere and parents realise they will be listened to - and aren't there to get a row from the headteacher - they will come."

Plenty of opportunities exist to draw parents into the life of a school and create a welcoming ethos, agrees Lorraine Hunter, the headteacher at Lawmuir Primary. "We have a joint health promotingEco-Schools committee, which is very active and currently working on an eco-garden. We are examining how to improving partnerships with parents for homework. After that we'll be looking at getting them involved with playground games.

"I have worked at schools with and without school boards, which are more formal in my experience and tend to consist of men from a business background. I feel every bit as supported by the Friends of Lawmuir as by a school board."

Benefits to learning and behaviour mean partnership with parents must be central to a school's ethos, says Ms Laing of Forthview Primary. "It's hugely important that kids see teachers and parents as a unit they can't play off against each other.

"We have challenging behaviour. The successful way to manage that, without a shadow of doubt, is to work closely with parents."

Ms Laing attributes much of the successful partnership with Forthview parents, and their willingness to play an active role in school life, to having a teacher dedicated to supporting their own learning and their involvement with children's learning.

"It starts at the school gate."


The Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Bill, which is now at the committee stage, contains the following provisions:

* School boards will be replaced by parent councils, designed to be more flexible and inclusive.

* Sample constitutions for parent councils and materials to assist effective consultation with parents will be prepared by the Scottish Executive.

* The whole parent body at each school - the parent forum - will decide arrangements for parent councils, being free to adopt a sample constitution or devise their own.

* There will be no requirement for elections: parents at each school will decide how to appoint members.

* Parent councils will: consult with other parents at the school and report back to them; be able to appoint paid clerks and enter into contracts with third parties; be involved in the appointment of heads and depute heads; be able to co-opt members from outwith the parent forum (a denominational school parent council must have at least one co-opted member nominated by the church); be able to raise concerns with HM inspectors (although these will only be used, except in very exceptional cases, to inform future inspections).

* A combined parent council may be set up for several schools, if a majority of parents in each school so desires.

* Headteachers will have a right and duty to attend parent council meetings.

* Headteachers will provide, at least annually, a report to the parent council evaluating the school's performance and stating its objectives and ambitions.

* Parental involvement will be an integral part of every school's development plans.

* Education authorities will have a duty to support the involvement of parents and the development of parent councils.

* Education authorities will prepare strategies for parental involvement, setting out how they intend to implement these duties. These will include policies on looked-after children and procedures on dealing with complaints.

* Education authorities will be subject to a duty to provide advice and information to individual parents on any matter relating to the education of their child.

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