New parent champion has Prior experience

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Incoming SPTC director Eileen Prior is a PR guru, a seasoned campaigner and a mother-of-three

It might not have been on the job spec, but one requirement for running the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) is likely to have been experience of parenthood.

As a mother-of-three, Eileen Prior, the new executive director of the organisation, has that in spades. But she also brings to the job a wealth of experience in public relations, not to mention parent advocacy for the rights of children requiring additional support.

Her eldest son, Mark, 22, recently graduated with a degree in sports science, while her 17-year-old daughter Sophie is in S6 at Peebles High and hopes to study fashion and design. Sophie is dyslexic, but has always been very precocious and independent, says her mother, with "a real Protestant work ethic".

Her youngest, Antony, is 12 and has Down's Syndrome. He also attends Peebles High, where he is in a mainstream S1 class but receives support.

Their first two children had had a relatively trouble-free progression through school, but with Antony, Mrs Prior and her husband Michael, an accountant, realised that the process of helping him understand about his world was entirely different.

Although as a parent, Mrs Prior first became involved in additional support with Sophie, it was through Antony that her interest in social justice was born. She attended a course run by a now-defunct organisation, Partners in Policymaking, which was targeted at parents of children with a disability.

"It opened my eyes to the potential of people and made me and my husband determined that Antony would have the same opportunities as his brother and sister," she says. "He has that right."

Around 10 years ago, Scottish Borders Council was hit by a severe financial crisis. The "red pen" was, Mrs Prior says, taken to areas of the budget which were aimed at supporting pupils already facing significant disadvantage. Along with a group of other parents, she campaigned to reverse these decisions - the following year, they succeeded.

Now, in 2010, education budgets across Scotland are being squeezed as never before and Mrs Prior fears that the more disadvantaged children may again lose out. She sees the hot potato of education funding being passed from Westminster to Holyrood to local authorities and, finally, down to schools.

"It should not be simply rhetoric that children are our future and that we have to invest in the future," she declares. "It is the truth, and we don't do it by cutting support and undermining the work of schools."

That is a message the SPTC will be aiming to communicate - and communication is Mrs Prior's stock-in-trade. Her career in public relations began with what was once Scotland's biggest agency, PR Consultants, and then with its successor company, Shandwick.

For the past 16 years, Mrs Prior has been self-employed.

She is a former chair of the parents' support group Equity, but also has experience outside the special needs arena, as a lay member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland since 2005.

In her new job, Mrs Prior has set herself the early task of consulting SPTC members to find out what more the organisation can do for them. Collaborative working is her watchword.

In recent times, with moves by the Scottish Government to set up a national parents' forum, the SPTC has become increasingly marginalised as a representative of the parent voice. Can Mrs Prior bring it inside the tent?

"I think there's a lot of respect for SPTC out there," she replies. "We have got good connections and a lot of good friends, but it is an ever- changing environment.

"I certainly think we need to work a bit harder at our relationships, at building and sustaining relationships, and at being a critical friend, in education parlance.

"We are not always going to agree with governments and we are not always going to agree with the various movers and shakers, but we will work alongside them and tell them straight when we don't like what they are doing."

When it comes to Curriculum for Excellence, Mrs Prior feels there has been a lack of communication. "We don't seem to have developed a form of words yet that really explains it," she says. "It is still very esoteric."

For someone with her background in communications, perhaps Mrs Prior can bring the necessary skills to bear.

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