Reluctance to come on board

21st March 2003 at 00:00
School boards are intended to give parents a voice in their children's education but members can be difficult to recruit. Douglas Blane looks at what puts parents off and reports on government plans to change the system

In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards," wrote Mark Twain (Following the Equator, 1897). Few in Scotland today would be so openly harsh, or indeed witty, in their criticisms but there is widespread agreement that school boards - first set up 15 years ago - have fulfilled their purpose only in some schools and for some of the time.

The report Support for School Boards by Philip Banks, commissioned last year by the Scottish Executive, says the main problem is the difficulty in attracting parent members, particularly from areas of social disadvantage and ethnic minorities. "It is felt that the current statutory framework, which prescribes formal election procedures and restricted membership, may be in part to blame for these difficulties." As a result, the boards struggle to reflect the full range of parental views.

Change is in the wind, though what will replace the current framework and when this will happen remains to be seen.

Last week, at a meeting attended by Education Minister Cathy Jamieson and her deputy, Nicol Stephen, the Executive took the first steps towards implementing the Banks proposals, as well as honouring its own commitment, in response to the national debate on education, to "involve parents more in their children's education" by a process of "reviewing and reforming the role of school boards and parent-teacher associations".

The meeting was also attended by the Scottish School Board Association, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and the Association of Directors of Education. No one at the SSBA was available to comment, either before or after the meeting. However, Judith Gillespie, development manager for the SPTC, did both.

Previously she has voiced concerns that parent-teacher associations - "the only independent parents' voice" - were becoming increasingly marginalised and relegated to mere fund raising, while the largely unrepresentative school boards assumed the mantle of sole legitimate parental platform. The Banks report did little to allay these fears, recommending that relations between school boards and PTAs should be "clarified" and stating that a single broadly-based parent body in every school "looks economical in terms of organisation, communication and breadth of interest". What is missing from the report, says the SPTC, is any detail about methods of achieving that laudable aim.

While "not enthusiastic" about developments, Mrs Gillespie was more hopeful after the meeting that changes might lead to new structures which encourage wider parental participation in schools.

This was the stated aim of all the parties. However, they currently disagree about how to achieve this.

"If you want parents involved, you have to put in place structures that are attractive to them," says Mrs Gillespie. "At present they are very unattractive. Essentially, parents have only two options: the school board, where the agenda is largely set by people outside who bombard them with heavy consultation documents; or the PTA, which is often told it is only allowed to raise funds.

"There are many parents who want to be involved with schools but not to be restricted to fund-raising or discussing policy documents. So, you need the kind of flexible arrangement that can accommodate different interests at different times and that allows for people to come in and out according to their time commitments, energies and interests.

"Parents are not a monolithic group, more like a river flowing under a bridge. Ever since Michael Forsyth came up with school boards, they have always been slightly alien to parents," she says.

Christine Dignan, group manager for schools services in Dumfries and Galloway, has some sympathy with this view. She was recruited from teaching in 1988 to set up a pilot study of the first six school boards in Scotland and says the parents who participated in those early days felt uncertain, "even a sense of bemusement".

"I sat in on all the meetings and arranged training for board members.

While they were all happy to be involved, there was a distinct feeling of 'What are we here for? Is it really going to make a difference to children's education?' Despite that, they were very keen to do the right thing.

"As I remember, the main issues school boards got involved with in the beginning were to do with property; problems with the fabric of the school building, for example."

In broadly political terms, she says, there was movement over the first few years, with boards initially aligning themselves with headteachers, then with local authorities to some extent in opposition to national government.

"When opting-out legislation came in, the boards quickly started to beat Westminster over the head, saying this wasn't what Scottish education needed and they wanted nothing to do with it," says Ms Dignan.

Such achievements were isolated, however, and the problems that surfaced in the first school board meetings persisted when the model was rolled out across Dumfries and Galloway and Scotland as a whole. They persist still.

There is still confusion and uncertainty among school board members over their role and authority, Ms Dignan says.

Attracting suitable - or indeed any - parent volunteers is a big problem, as it was in the pilot study, and the question of how representative of a school's parent body a handful of people can be, remains one of the arguments deployed against the boards.

"I don't think anything has changed dramatically in the 15 years we've had school boards in Scotland," says Ms Dignan. "You might argue that boards have brought the need for partnership with parents more sharply into focus than in the 1980s, but I think that would have happened anyway.

"I think you would find it hard to sustain an argument that the openness we now have between parents and schools derives from the existence of a school board, with no more than, say, four parents for a primary school. It's much more to do with a growing recognition by schools that they are not the main educators of children. Parents are.

"I really don't think school boards have been a major force for change in getting parents' voices into schools. I don't want to diminish their role: school boards have been a useful touchstone, a reference body if you like.

But they were very much of their time. Since those early days, schools and parents have moved on in their desire to work together.

"We no longer need the formal structure that puts many parents off. All of us want schools to bring in parents to work with them but it doesn't need the legislative, highly structured framework of the school boards."

Support for School Boards, Philip Banks, 2002; Educating for Excellence: Choice and Opportunity. The Executive's Response to the National Debate, Scottish Executive, 2003, School Board Association www.schoolboard-scotland.comScottish Parent Teacher Council

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