Parent power gives little strength to poor

30th September 2005 at 01:00
We are about to enter a new era (a new White Paper) where parent power is to be further increased. According to the Government, parent power is crucial to successful schools. We know parental involvement in their children's schools and in their children's learning is essential and is probably the main difference between those schools which are deemed successful and those which are not. But nothing is as simple as it seems.

The most difficult barrier to inclusion is harnessing parent power. I know I am not alone, and there are countless schools across the country who face similar difficulties.

When my own son was at school we did everything good middle-class parents are expected to do. This involved supporting the school in the usual ways and supporting our son's learning. We made sure he attended school every day, was on time and was properly prepared for learning. We ensured he was well fed and had a good night's sleep. We made sure he did his homework and coursework and handed them in on time. We turned up for every open evening and rugby match as well as for other school occasions. We did this because we were able to do it. We felt it was important to support our child.

The majority of parents at his school felt the same and gave equal (if not more) support to their child. Every parents' evening saw the school full to capacity; there were regular elections for parent governors and a well-attended PTA. This was a school in a leafy suburb with a comfortable socio-economic profile. It therefore had a natural pool of involved and supportive parents.

The school where I work does not have the same profile. We interview parents (or carers) and pupils once they have been awarded a place at the school. Many parents we never see. They don't turn up for the interview or for the new parents' evening or for regular progress review days. We have never had an election for a parent governor in the nine years I have been head. Instead we try to head-hunt possible candidates.

This is not because our parents don't want to be involved. Many just don't know how to support their child or the school. They have difficulty enough managing their teenage children at home without getting them organised for school. Many of our children live chaotic lives where nobody gets up at a set time or has a regular routine. Many feel that education is unimportant or has nothing to do with them - it's the school's job.

My point is that parent power is not all it's made out to be. It's only powerful in the hands of those who know how to use it. Tony Blair insists that parent power will drive the academy initiative which sees failing schools replaced with state-of-the-art buildings at an average cost of pound;25 million each. Yet these will be independent schools and will not be subject to the same degree of accountability as state schools. You can be sure that the socio-economic profile of those that gain admission to these academies will be very different from the schools they are replacing.

The bid to gain a place in a new academy takes knowledge of how the system works. Those who are struggling will not have the wherewithal to secure a place for their child. Social inclusion is about parents as well as pupils. This country is class-ridden and money equals power. Once parents have the economic power they move out and live amongst people who are "like them". This creates schools and neighbourhoods that are segregated. As Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, said last week: "We are schooling people to be strangers to each other". This is bound to increase under present government policies. We need some joined-up thinking if we are to get real equality of opportunity.

Kenny Frederick is the head of George Green's school in Tower Hamlets, London

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