It helps if you have a say

28th March 1997 at 00:00
John Clark reports on how politicians have involved parents - and one pupil.

Margaret Duffy had a baptism of fire as the parent member of South Lanarkshire's education committee. "I was only appointed on January 8 and less than two weeks later at my first council meeting we were right into budget cuts," she says.

The council was soon to learn that extending the franchise could be a double-edged weapon as Mrs Duffy set about organising a protest meeting and raised a petition signed by 4,000 people. The most controversial savings were duly withdrawn.

Mrs Duffy, a social work manager, says: "I would like to think I made a difference. I was able to put forward questions and was listened to by elected members and departments." It helps that she has a vote. Her next move will be to propose parents' forums that would meet four times a year.

Stefan Holmer, parent member of North Ayrshire's committee, is a careers officer and no stranger to schools. But, sitting on Arran High school board, he sees himself very much as part of the parental scene, alerting and reporting back to a seven-strong parents' representative committee.

The issues that have concerned him have included special needs, school transport, security and uniforms. The apparent attractiveness of Arran for parents of children with special needs, stretching teacher resources, has particularly exercised him.

Mr Holmer's verdict so far: "A fascinating induction."

Shelagh McKerrell, who represents parents in East Ayrshire, describes her induction as "nerve-wracking" but says she now enjoys her role thoroughly. "My position is impartial. Everyone else is either employed by the education department or is political. I have a vote but I have no political master. "

Mrs McKerrell, a part-time clerical officer with the local community health board, was elected from among school board members. She chairs Silverwood primary school board in Kilmarnock.

"I get the impression parents may have more trust in the education committee knowing one of them is on it. I have no evidence of this but, having been on school boards, I know you get reactions like 'who are they and how did they come to this decision?' Perhaps having someone like myself on the committee strips away the mystery."

Most councils have decided against what one director of education describes as "token" parents. But many have set up consultative groups. A typical example is the 54-strong forum in South Ayrshire chaired by Fraser Cook, a local architect. "The way we see it is that the school board system is for formal consultation," Mr Cook says. "We are part of an informal consultation process so that, unlike school boards, there is nothing we cannot discuss. We can also look beyond individual schools to the whole of South Ayrshire."

The group has held two conferences and last week ran a roadshow in Girvan focusing on special needs and support for learning.

Even more exotic than education committee parents are pupil members. Louise Massanopoli, in her sixth year at St Modan's High in Stirling, is so far the only Scottish pupil sitting on what the council calls its children's committee.

Louise was elected on the basis of a manifesto-essay which was voted in by all the senior pupils from Stirling's secondary schools. She praises the initiative "because it allows pupils to have a say instead of adults making all the decisions".

She adds: "I just sit back and if I have anything to say I say it. Sometimes the words go over my head. Sometimes I disagree."

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