Be prepared to get involved with your school's parent teacher association, urges Luke Darlington - it is a vital source of willing volunteers and extra resources
It is quite likely that your first school will have a parent teacher association or its equivalent. What will it mean for you and should you become involved?
The PTA is a motivated and supportive group of people with a strong and active interest in the school's welfare. It may embrace a wider membership known simply as Friends, or it may just be a parents' association. It is not unusual for it to be open, free of charge, to all parents and guardians, all teaching and non-teaching staff, and all friends, past and present.
A good association works co-operatively with the headteacher, staff and governors. It will be properly constituted with stated aims and an elected committee, and may also benefit from being affiliated to the National Confederation (NCPTA). It may be a registered charity. It is not the role of the group to duplicate that of the governing body, or to be a vehicle for complaints. It is not a watchdog and should not interfere with the school's basic organisation. But it can be a powerful force for good by encouraging positive links between the staff, parents and any others connected with the school, and by engaging in supportive activities which advance the education of its pupils.
A PTA has many purposes but mainly it can add immensely to the quality of a school by providing agreed resources which are not affordable from the budget. Computers, library books, maths, science and technology equipment are all favourite requirements, though there may also be longer-term projects such as a new stage or library, a pond area, an extension to the playground, a double garage for storage, or a minibus.
But the headteacher may draw a firm line between basic equipment, which should be funded centrally, and fringe items which could be regarded as extras. Sometimes that line is blurred and it is tempting to cross it. The PTA contribution should ideally be on extras, not essentials. Schools are major businesses, but they receive minimal capitation and there is little incentive for the Government to provide more money for essential resources if PTAs provide a top-up.
Fundraising occurs in a multitude of ways, with the emphasis often on the fun. Christmas and summer fairs are traditionally popular, but social activities such as discos, quiz evenings, auctions, fashion shows and barbecues may find their way on to the ideas list.
A successful committee knows the ways of the school and is enthusiastic and hard working. It will generate ideas and do its best to persuade everybody either to help at events or to attend them. Meetings may be held monthly in school or elsewhere and, depending on how things are organised, you may be able to attend them informally, or perhaps as the staff representative for the term or year.
Sometimes a PTA has a simpler role, providing prizes and refreshments on sports day for example, or back-up at official functions, but it can also be a source of helpers who will put in a morning's work or act as an emergency task force.
The T of PTA is important. It also stands for Teamwork - enabling the school to thrive as a complete unit. By joining in, by volunteering to help and by meeting parents beyond the classroom you will enhance mutual respect and confidence. It is also a practical way of recognising what parents do for the school.
Not all the staff may think parents should have such a high profile. Some still see PTAs as an encroachment, an excuse to meddle, a move towards over-familiarity, the thin end of a wedge and a threat. But although PTAs may genuinely not be sustainable in some areas, perhaps for economic reasons, they are very much part of the scene now, so I would urge against such attitudes and say accept them with open arms for the fine voluntary work they do. They are part of the school family, or should be, and there is much good will as well as undiscovered and welcome expertise to be tapped.
Many of today's children are fortunate to have such back-up during this long period of financial restraint. For me, for the past 30 years, PTAs and the like have increasingly proved to be among the most important and enjoyable assets a school can have. Why not join in and judge for yourself?
Luke Darlington is headteacher of St Mary's CE Primary School, Yate, Bristol