'Let diversity flourish'

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Despite all the concerns about school boards, some of them work very well and not everyone supports the current drive to simplify the structure of parent representative bodies.

At King's Park Secondary in Glasgow, Helen Garner, the chair of the school board and a researcher in public health and policy, says:

"What's wrong with two different organisations? Maybe we should have more.

Let diversity flourish, is what I say.

"The Banks report, Support for School Boards, criticises the formal structure of school boards, the elections and so on. Well, I'm a great supporter of those because I think they are democratic, open, tried and trusted.

"Over the years we've worked out how to run a meeting and the rules of doing so are shared, understood and written down. So, if conflict arises, there's a mechanism to deal with it.

"If you take away the formality of meetings, so that they become badly organised, badly chaired and dominated by one person, then that really puts people off."

Ms Garner is uneasy about the predominantly white, middle-class, female membership of school boards. "Yes, it concerns me," she says, "just as it concerns me that we have no MSPs from ethnic minorities. I want to be as socially inclusive as possible.

"But the fact is it's hard to get anybody, whatever their background. So let's not start criticising volunteers, who are taking time out from busy lives, for not being more socially inclusive when our paid representatives and long established political parties have yet to achieve it."

Even when pressed, Ms Garner declines to say how much time she devotes to school board duties. "It might put people off."

The board is made up of six parents, two members of staff and gives the pupil body a formal voice in the affairs of the school by including two elected senior pupils.

In the past year, it has been active in issues ranging from the public-private partnership refurbishment of King's Park Secondary - "One of our members is a civil engineer, so we could talk to the contractors in their own language" - to gathering parental feedback on the national debate on education, promoting school lockers and health and safety concerns, "like the stairs being too narrow".

"Quite a lot of our work is responding to documents sent by the Scottish Executive for consultation," says Ms Garner.

"We work very closely with the PTA: their chair is invited along to our meetings and ours to theirs."

Headteacher David Baillie believes he is fortunate in having a school board and a PTA that not only work well separately but also in co-operation with each other.

"The majority of parents are interested in what is happening in the school but, in my experience, there is just a small core who are actively involved and prepared to give up their own time for the good of the school," he says.

"As a headteacher and a parent I've always felt a board is good for a school. It gives the head a group of parents to consult about a range of issues on a very formal basis. That is quite different from a PTA. So, if something like a major refurbishment of the school comes up, or we want to make changes to the curriculum, then the school board is a body I can go to and work with.

"I am not saying the school and the board always agree. Of course not. But the board does provide a forum to discuss issues more widely than with just my senior staff. We work very well together."

Mr Baillie is aware of several school boards around Glasgow that are dedicated too, partly because of the recent refurbishment of schools, which stimulated many parents to get involved, and partly because the authority employs an active individual who has responsibility for working with school boards, helping new ones into existence and delivering members' training that elsewhere would be provided by the Scottish School Board Association.

For Ms Garner, the key to effective school boards is sharing information and working at seeing others' point of view, "whether it's the neighbour who is upset because his garden is being trampled by pupils, or the teacher who doesn't want to ask when it suits parents to come into school. Sharing information is hard work and it takes time.

"I've been on school boards for seven years. I'm a parent with two kids.

Would anyone do it otherwise?"

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