Quest for the perfect parents
PARENT power has been a popular government remedy for a failing education system since the 1980s. Apolitical, consumer-
oriented, and full of common sense, parents have no truck with faddists and the politically correct. That's the theory.
The election of parent governors as representatives on education authorities is the latest attempt to discover this Holy Grail. With voting rights on
educational matters and freedom to speak on anything at all, they are supposed to fill the democratic deficit between county hall and parents.
Parent-governor representatives took up their positions in June and July, with two to three on each English council. The TES has contacted 18 representatives from 15 authorities, ranging from leafy shires to metropolitan boroughs, to see how they are settling in. There are marked variations in their backgrounds and appointments and, although it's early days, there are contrasting satisfaction levels.
For instance, while some have triumphed in well-contested
elections, others were unopposed - such was the shortage of candidates. One representative in Durham admitted that he would never have taken the job if a council officer had not suggested it.
Many seasoned governors were appointed but a number of those contacted had just a few years' experience or less of school governance. The question remains as to whether they have the political experience to challenge well-established party hacks.
Contact with parents and raising the profile of representatives was mentioned by many. Toni Bovill, of East Riding, described the lack of it as her main frustration. But Kate Harper in Buckinghamshire was indignant about a Department for Education and Employment booklet suggesting that representatives should attend annual parents' meetings and set up stalls.
"I have a life of my own and I didn't think I had embarked on a political career," she said.
Time pressures also cropped up. Many of the interviewees were full-time parents, worked part-time or were unemployed. But those with full-time jobs or businesses pointed to the difficulties of daytime meetings.
David Anderson, in Warwickshire, was using his holiday entitlement to get to meetings. "To be honest it is very time-consuming for no financial reward."
Several representatives reported councillors and education authorities who were not sure what to make of the new animals. In some cases there was indifference, in others, incomprehension. Yet some representatives were highly complimentary about how they had been treated.
Jane Sharpe, in Cumbria, said she was underwhelmed at her first meeting. "We were surprised not to be asked our views. But there were apologies later and one councillor said he was pleased we had brought up something on special needs."
Juliet Lote, however, who topped the poll in a contested
ballot in Worcestershire, said the director of education services had paid a lot of attention and the
system was very open. However, a few councillors had shown some disgruntlement at the range of committees she and her colleague could sit on.
In Sheffield, Peter Francis found councillors and officers were supportive: "I was pleasantly surprised ad they treated me with respect." There were also compliments from Devon and Dorset representatives.
There have been slow starts in some areas because the representatives have arrived while councils are restructuring how political decisions are made, and moving from traditional committees to new "cabinets" of councillors. Many representatives turned up on the lifelong learning scrutiny committees. They reacted with either puzzlement or enthusiasm to the agendas, which covered issues well beyond schools - such as libraries and adult learning.
Bedfordshire's Lionel Stewart, for instance, said PGRs had a lot of impact in a discussion on libraries. And he enjoyed the agenda items on youth issues which reflected his own professional interests. Deborah
Marshall in Enfield, however, wondered what she was doing discussing skateboard parks: "Until this month very few
educational matters have actually been dealt with."
There was a high degree of motivation, a belief that they were learning a great deal, and that their views were valued. Their e-mail forum, part of the support network run by the National Foundation for
Educational Research, has been buzzing.
The London borough of
Croydon, County Durham and Worcestershire offer differing views from their respective recruits to the new environment. Charlie Burroughs, a governor with 30 years' experience in Croydon, is pessimistic: "They are trying to get us to rubber stamp
everything which we are not to keen to do. It has proved difficult to make an impact. And expenses take six weeks - if you're lucky."
Colleague Julie Hudson added: "The support isn't there. No one has done what The TES has - asking us how we are
But Anita Atkinson was full of praise for Durham: "We have had professional training on scrutiny work, we were welcomed with open arms, shown round, including the members' room. The expenses come straight back."
And Juliet Lote felt that the representatives had made an early impact in Worcestershire in challenging proposed catchment areas for schools in Redditch. Letters from parents flooded in when she was featured in the local media and officers changed the original proposals in response.
These are early days for representatives, and their value is still emerging. Ultimately, effectiveness may depend on the aptitudes and hard work of individuals - just as in school governance.
Whether the knights of parent power will have an impact on educational improvement is another matter. It must be odds-on that they will keep searching for that Holy Grail.
PARENT-GOVERNOR REPS: THE FACTS
There are around 320 PGRs in England.
They were elected by fellow parent governors during the summer. Many were returned unopposed.
Every education authority in
England has between two and five.
PGRs have the same voting rights as councillors on educational matters, and speaking rights on all issues.
However, they can't vote on the size of the local education budget.
They are meant to represent all parents - not governors.
They are entitled to the same expenses as councillors, such as meeting allowances.
The National Foundation for Educational Research run a support network for PGRs, providing e-mail links, newsletters and conferences.