Now is the time to say goodbye

21st June 1996 at 01:00
I thought I'd take the opportunity of this final piece to reflect on the seven years I've been writing School Boards Forum. During those seven years, many school board members have come and gone but almost as many have stayed, moving from primary to secondary or even to life, as a co-opted member.

Meanwhile the tremendous battles which raged around the start of the school board process have become no more than a dim memory. Who can now recall the consultation which resulted in 8,000 responses, mostly from parents and parent-teacher associations.? Weep your heart out all those who despair of getting parental involvement - it's there if parents consider the issue important enough.

The overwhelming message in those 8,000 responses was that, while parents were quite happy to be involved in schools, they had no desire to run them and, more than anything, they didn't want other parents taking decisions that would affect their children. It was in this spirit that many people first stood for boards - a case of "rather me than someone else and at least I won't rock the boat".

Who now can remember the great furore over "ceiling powers" or the clever political manoeuvre which saw the Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth exercise a sleight of hand and change the name to "delegated powers" without actually changing the substance of what was on offer? However, it was an empty battle as there are few recorded cases of any school board applying for delegated powers.

So how should boards be judged, seven years on? Are they the failures the Labour Party's consultation document "Every Child is Special" suggests? The answer is it depends on how you measure success. Seen from the perspective of 1989, boards have been a failure. Their rather restricted membership gave the game away - they were set up as embryonic boards of management and the plan was that they would quickly initiate a great rush of schools seeking self-governing status. It simply hasn't happened.

At present, there are two opted-out schools and, while there have been a number of ballots, nearly every one has been an attempt to avoid closure or to win some battle against the education authority. Not a single opting-out ballot has occurred simply because parents want to run their school.

Seen in terms of involving more parents, boards have also been something of a failure. Although three-quarters of schools now have boards, very few are there because of an election. On the whole, they still use the standard recruiting method of an arm up the back.

However, boards have brought more men into school affairs and, in any gathering of secondary school headteachers and school board chairmen, it is very difficult to tell one suit from another. It is totally representative that the office bearers of the Scottish School Board Association are all male.

However, boards have been successful in lobbying on behalf of their schools. For many headteachers, boards have been a convenient weapon to arm and use against the authority to get some extra work done - a necessary repair, some much-needed painting, new computers and such like. Here boards have been successful in drawing the problem to the attention of the authorities but less successful in getting real action taken because of the limits on funds, particularly capital monies, over the past seven years. Boards have become frustrated at this lack of success and questioned their purpose.

For many, school boards' greatest successes have been in fighting the Government. The height of their achievement is seen as the national testing campaign when, in many schools, it was the board which spear-headed parental opposition to the compulsory tests in primary 4 and 7.

The fight came along at just the right time and gave boards a purpose when they had got over the initial struggles and were beginning to wonder what they should do. Similarly, boards are now finding a new purpose in fighting the educational cuts and are even working out ways to mount joint campaigns - a new phenomenon.

However, if you strip away all the rhetoric, all the high-profile campaigns, then a board's most useful and potentially successful role has simply been as a discussion forum for the school - vide the title of this column.

In this, the various interests of the different constituents - parents, pupils, staff, and management - can be considered calmly, and the best solution to any problem quietly found. It may not be a glamorous role, it may not have much power, but it is the one role where boards can genuinely serve the interests of the whole school community.

The difference between a talking shop and a consultative group is more than just the name. It is the positive attitude and value which members bring to it. Good luck over the next seven years and salve atque vale.

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