Listen, do you want to know a secret?

11th February 2000 at 00:00
The focus of school boards is changing under the education Bill, but few seem concerned, says Judith Gillespie

THERE IS A certain irony that, just as the Scottish School Board Association is causing the Executive such grief over Section 28, the Standards in Scotland's Schools Etc Bill gives unequivocal confirmation of school boards' place in the sun.

But forget parents' representation: the Bill makes boards the agents of Government, charged with delivering the improvement agenda. It moves boards on to the side of management by requiring them to exercise their functions "with a view to raising standards . . . and (to) support the endeavours of those managing the school" (clause 23). No longer for them the luxury of challenging Government targets!

The price boards pay for this is some curtailment of their powers. The biggest change comes from the repeal of the self-governing legislation. This removes the scope for boards to grow into full-blown boards of management. But the Bill also makes modest reductions in boards' powers over appointments and delegated functions. It then goes on to make them slightly more parent-friendly by allowing casual vacancies to be filled by co-option.

Well satisfied with all these changes, the Improving Our Schools - Consultation Response observes that "these reforms will remove the perception that school boards are an imposition and a challenge to the professional management of schools". Well, they would say that of Government agents!

The Bill moves quickly on into the new century with a new focus on children. For trend-spotters, the signs were there in the proceedings of the parliamentary education committee when ministers attended to give evidence on the draft bill. Committee members spent 40 minutes considering how children could be involved, saying that "if young people are not involved in the improvement of their education, there is no foundation for any improvement at all".

Spurred on by this, the Government commissioned Save the Children to run some focus groups, and hence it is no longer just "the duty of the parent . . . to provide" and the duty of every local authority to make "adequate and efficient provision".

It is now the "right of every child . . . to be provided with school education". Moreover, schools are to set up pupil councils and children are to be consulted over development plans.

Coming full circle, the parliamentary education committee is now wondering whether it might call on the TAG theatre company to help its members take evidence from children over the Bill.

So parents are out, children are in - does it matter? Well, parents and children do not always have the same view. On the plus side, youngsters have shown themselves to be far more balanced than their elders over the Section 28 furore, but it is not clear that children's desires, as expresse in the Save the Children report, for shorter days, longer breaks and more fun work provide a sound basis for school education.

The Government has decided to leave the wider question of parental involvement in schools to a National Planning Forum comprising the main parents' organisations. Of these, the SSBA would claim to be the most "representative" because of the elaborate election procedure for its member boards. But truth to tell, only some 20 per cent of boards ever get enough candidates to trigger an election and most places are filled by default. Moreover, they contain only a few parents - typically, five from a school of 1,000 pupils - who tend to come from the top social group at the school.

For its part, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council would claim grass-roots legitimacy, because its member PTAs include more parents who are drawn from a broader range of people. Their "representativeness" comes more from osmosis than from any formal democratic procedure.

The Scottish Consumer Council, however, views both SSBA and SPTC as corrupted by their teacher memberships. The SCC is offering to step into the breach and establish a non-representative, Government-funded, parent-only body, which will establish parents' views through research. To understand what a Government-funded, non-representative body is like, we need only look at the original consultation on school boards in 1987: there were 8,000 respondents of whom over 90 per cent rejected the proposal.

The SCC, in its wisdom, chose to ignore the majority view and support Government policy. The critical difference between the SCC and the membership organisations is accountability and that parents cannot leave in protest.

The real question, however, is whether any of this really catapults parental views on to the national stage, or whether it merely acts as a go-between for Government and parents. It is noticeable that of some 2,500 school boards in Scotland, only 64 responded to the draft bill. Read into this what you will, but it shows parents would rather get on with their own lives than respond to Government consultations.

Parents' attention is rightly focused on their school and their children. In general, they are willing to let their various national organisations act on their behalf, and only get exercised when those organisations get it wrong.

One school board summed it up well in its response to the consultation on Targeting Excellence. It wrote that "the document covers too vast a range of subjects to comment on meaningfully, although it was agreed that if school boards are to be more involved they must be given more information and more genuine consultation". In other words, we demand the right to be consulted but don't expect us always to respond.

Judith Gillespie is development manager with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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