The rise of parent power

27th January 2012 at 00:00
As parental influence increases at the expense of local authorities and education professionals, Stephen Exley asks what it means for the heads, teachers and pupils caught up in this tug of war

When Tracey Best found out that St Colette's - the school attended by her son, Adam - was to close, she was devastated. With a third of its places unfilled, the company running the 90-year-old prep school proclaimed that "pupil numbers and new enquiries for places have proved insufficient (for the school) to operate viably".

"The parents were heartbroken," Best says. "St Colette's was such a lovely school - it had a great atmosphere. We didn't want it to die." And despite professional warnings that it was not a financially feasible proposition, a core group of five parents was determined that the school's ethos should live on.

"We had no idea about how to run a school," Best candidly admits. But they learned quickly: just five months later, in time for the start of the academic year, the group of Cambridge parents opened a new school from scratch. They managed to raise #163;40,000 to fund the project - appropriately named the Phoenix School - and recruited 10 employees who had been made redundant from St Colette's.

"It's the most rewarding thing I have ever done," Best smiles. The apparent fairy tale does not end there. The Phoenix's roll has almost doubled since it opened; 18 months on, the school is planning to quadruple in size and expand its age range. It was rated good by Ofsted in its first inspection. The story goes to show that, sometimes at least, mum really does know best.

While a single success story involving a tiny independent school may seem to have little bearing on the national educational landscape, the fall of St Colette's and the rise of the Phoenix mirrors a shift in government policy towards giving parents a more hands-on role in shaping the education of their children than ever before.

Most prominent is the introduction of free schools, allowing groups of parents to band together and apply to open their own schools. Similarly, Ofsted has set up a new website for parents to rate their child's school, with negative ratings potentially triggering an inspection. Parents have also been encouraged to make use of their power to appeal against schools' admissions policies. Long gone are the days when the majority of parents turned up unquestioningly at the school gates, dumped their kids and headed off.

While the traditional Parent Teacher Association model is as strong as ever, parents and guardians are no longer restricted to attending the odd meeting or running a tombola at the summer fair. And the head's office is no longer their first port of call.

Resisting the 'pushy' parent

Staffrooms have long been filled with horror stories about pushy parents, desperate to ensure that their child gets nothing but the best - sometimes unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that trained professionals could know the correct course for their darling offspring. And in a system that listens most closely to those who shout the loudest, vocal minorities of parents have the power to override the educational establishment's best-laid plans, even if it means that the majority will lose out.

As former head of Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford and ex-president of the Girls' Schools Association, Jill Berry knows a thing or two about pushy parents. "I certainly recognise the type, have the T-shirt and bear the scars," she wrote in her blog last year. "In many altercations with very forceful and assertive - even aggressive - parents, I always felt I could empathise with their desire to do what was best (or what they perceived to be best) for the child they love.

"As a head, I often had to explain that, while understanding and sympathising with their position, my concern for the other 800 plus young people in the school gave me a wider perspective and a sense of the big picture that they sometimes lacked."

For some parents, the stress starts before their child has walked through the school gate. One of the biggest sources of tension in parent-school relationships is school admissions. With parents more clued up than ever about how best to work the system and gain a place at the school of their choice, the inevitable rejections dished out by oversubscribed schools mean that not everyone is going to be kept happy.

Referrals to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator peaked in 2009-10, with the number of objections to schools' admissions policies almost doubling to 387. Of those, 92 per cent were lodged by parents. In last year's annual report, former chief adjudicator Dr Ian Craig noted "an increasing sophistication of referrals and a high involvement of lawyers supporting them". He also welcomed the "greater scrutiny" by parents ensuring that schools comply with the necessary regulations to publish their policies online.

Not only are parents allowed to challenge the educational establishment, they are being encouraged to police it themselves. The next logical step in the process, therefore, is to allow parents to take control of schools. With its free schools policy, the coalition has finally made this possible.

The quiet market town of Beccles, surrounded by flat farmland and less than 10 miles from the Suffolk coast, may seem an unlikely epicentre for parental empowerment. But the shockwaves caused by a parent-led plan to open a free school in the town have been felt all the way to Westminster.

Beccles Free School is scheduled to open in September. The project was triggered by the town switching from a three-tier education system to a two-tier structure of primaries and secondaries. Under Suffolk's county-wide school reorganisation programme, Beccles Middle School is to close this summer. Accordingly, the county council drew up plans for its older pupils to start at the town's secondary, Sir John Leman High School, which was asked to double its intake to meet demand.

But a group of parents, led by father of two Aidan McHugh, had other ideas. They put forward a proposal for a smaller 540-place secondary in the town. The group received more than 500 expressions of interest in just nine weeks; in October, the application for the free school to open this September was approved by the Department for Education.

"There is low achievement in the area; in the league tables we, at best, have average achievement," McHugh tells TES. "Some kids are terrified and just not thriving when they go into the large (secondary) schools ... If you have large numbers in a school, you have more issues to contain than in a smaller school; that's a fact, not a criticism. I think a better way of addressing this challenge is to have a second school.

"The vision we have for a smaller model of school lies in establishing very strong pastoral care alongside a serious academic focus ... Parents began to tell us that they wanted some choice. We hope that both (schools) will thrive. Not just one or the other will survive - both will have a part to play."

So far, so good. But simmering tensions in the town reached boiling point when the free school team lodged an application to take on the town's middle school site, which had already been promised to Sir John Leman. Jeremy Rowe, headteacher at the secondary, is understandably worried and has not shied away from speaking out against the parents' plans, which he has described as "educational suicide".

Rowe's frustration is understandable. Portable classrooms are currently being installed at his school at a cost of #163;2 million in anticipation of the arrival of the 400 extra pupils the local authority has told him to expect. He has warned that a drop of 330 pupils from the school roll would cost him #163;1 million, 15 per cent of his budget. This would lead to the likely closure of the school's recently opened skills centre. "It's obscene and absurd," he says.

Last week, Sir John Leman was told that it had won the battle for the middle school site, with the free school now set to open several miles away in Carlton Colville, before taking over the Beccles Middle School site in 2014. But, as Rowe explains, the ill feeling remains: "There is no need for a new school. It will only be offering parts of the curriculum that we are doing already. There will be less choice overall and we will have to cut back on what we offer.

"It's astonishing, the power that a tiny group of parents have. If there is a school and you set up a free school next to it, it will kill it ... (The school) will have to be slimmed down, leading to redundancies and class sizes going up. Parents behind free schools either don't know or they just don't care."

Rowe's fears are shared by Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). "If there is no shortage of places in an area where a free school is set up, parents may be acting in the best interests of their own children, but actually undermining the education of other children," he says. "It's a very selfish attitude."

But for some parents, accepting the status quo is just not an option. North Kirklees is a pocket of West Yorkshire which, like Beccles, is switching to a two-tier system. Plans drawn up by the local authority would have seen the middle schools serving the communities of Birkenshaw, Birstall, East Bierley and Gomersal close this summer.

A proposed new secondary school in Birkenshaw was scrapped when the previous Conservative council administration was ousted by Labour. Instead, the new leadership decided to expand Whitcliffe Mount, the nearest secondary, to take on 1,800 pupils. This would include displaced youngsters from the Birkenshaw area.

For some parents, this was simply not acceptable. Sharon Light, whose daughter Rebecca would be affected by the change, was one of those who decided to take action. "We didn't want our children to go there. It's not a bad school, but it's not outstanding. A school that big wouldn't be right for our children. Children should be able to go to school in their local community," she says.

The parents decided to make their feelings known. They organised a 400-strong car convoy to drive to the secondary in order to demonstrate the impact it would have. "The area was gridlocked for three hours," Light explains, proudly. Other publicity stunts included a walk-to-school rally attended by 500 people, a march to Huddersfield Town Hall and a silent procession of children through a council meeting.

A vocal minority

When the parent group became aware of the free schools policy being proposed by the Conservatives - then in opposition - they threw their backing behind the party. The Tories were happy to take advantage. Days before the 2010 general election, leader David Cameron and then shadow education secretary Michael Gove joined 1,000 protesters to show their support.

"You are an inspiration in terms of an active community that is not going to put up with the bureaucrats saying 'no' and want it to be the case that it is the parents who say 'yes'," Cameron told campaigners. "The whole aim of my government, if we win this election, will be to help people like you." The Tories were true to their word: last June, the BBG Academy Trust - formed by the parents - was given permission to open a new 750-place secondary in Birkenshaw.

"We know what's best for our community," Light, now chair of the trust, explains. "We live and breathe it, we know what parents want. There are eight of us (on the trust board) and we have been in it from the start ... We are in the best position to make decisions about our children's education."

Kirklees Council would beg to differ. While some questioned its decisions, it at least had an oversight of education across the borough and could plan accordingly. Now it has been thrown into chaos. "The whole practice of how you strategically plan for the future has changed quite radically," Cath Harris, executive councillor for children's services, says. "There is significant overcapacity in North Kirklees. One school closed last year. We feel that there isn't the population to sustain a viable new secondary without affecting other schools in the area. It could potentially have a very significant impact.

"I see it as our job to ensure that the voices of all parents are heard and that the need for a high-quality education for all is equally met. I view my role as being to make sure other parents do have a say and a part in shaping the education system."

On the importance of this issue, at least, the council and parents behind the new academy are agreed; on how best to achieve it, however, they are poles apart.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, also takes the view that empowering small groups of parents can disadvantage the rest. "Power is not equally distributed among parents. Some are more skilled and more aspirational ... We should anchor parental engagement to improving education for everyone; working with existing schools rather than setting up new ones. It won't help improve education for every child if a new school opens in an area with insufficient need. It's a misuse of parents' power."

It is not just the schools that lose out, according to Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors' Association (NGA). "It's difficult to ascertain whether there's a silent majority, but sometimes parents can be disenfranchised from these activities. And there are children who are (also disenfranchised) because their parents don't participate."

But, like it or not, parent power is becoming increasingly pronounced. Another key change introduced last year was the creation of Ofsted's Parent View website, where parents can rate a school by answering questions such as whether their child is happy there, feels safe and is making progress.

Jean Humphrys, interim director of development education and care at the watchdog, tells TES that the site was created with the purpose of giving more parents a voice. "We get feedback from parents during the inspection process, but we wanted to create opportunities for parents (to have their say) throughout the year."

She insists that Ofsted checks the details of respondents to make sure the system is not hijacked by "vexatious" parents, skewing a school's rating. But where a high volume of responses outline widespread dissatisfaction, this prompts Ofsted officials to scrutinise a school's performance in detail before, potentially, carrying out an inspection.

"Parents are the people who experience schools day in, day out," Humphrys adds. "They know if something happens, if that's typical or not, and how their own child is doing. I think that it's invaluable."

Playing the system

However, critics again argue that only the most switched-on parents will be able to take advantage of the new system. Margaret Morrissey, founder of campaign group Parents Outloud, is concerned that Parent View excludes families that are not IT-literate. "Many parents can't access the website. I don't think the system does children, parents or schools any favours," she adds.

The NAHT's Hobby agrees. "There is no guarantee that it's a representative view. Most parents like what their school is doing, but the people who fill in these surveys tend to be the ones who are problematic. If there are only trends and anecdotes, serious problems can grow out of vexatious complaints. I encourage schools to set up computers at parents' evenings so the majority of parents can have their say, too."

Questionnaires for parents, Brian Lightman points out, are by no means a new idea. "Schools are already doing parental surveys. The ASCL believes that this is good practice; the responses can give feedback constructively. The problem (with Parent View) is that it is a low-trust model. The real way to improve education for children is to work in partnership with schools. It seems to be more about doing things to the schools rather than with the schools. I think that's regrettable."

The traditional model of parental engagement with schools, of course, is joining a governing body. According to Knights of the NGA, this is still the best way of having a say in a child's education. "We are pro parent governors ... they bring knowledge and understanding about the school that only outsiders can bring. This can be a really powerful tool. Under the Academies Act 2010, academies must have a minimum of two parent governors, but we encourage schools to have more than the minimum."

And it is not just elected parental representatives who should be kept in the loop, Hobby believes. The more contact parents have with what is happening on the other side of the school gate, the less likely they are to turn elsewhere if they have any problems with the school. "Parent power is a legitimate force for school improvement. The more engaged parents are, the more children learn. And (parents) can do lots for a school. We can't say, 'Sorry, it's none of your business how we run the school.' We have to engage in a challenging and robust debate."

Similarly, Morrissey is quick to give credit to schools for the work they have done in recent years to improve communication with families. "Schools have worked very hard to include parents. Many schools send information to parents' mobile phones. The main improvements I have seen over the past 10-15 years have been school-led and not government-led. They have probably not been given credit for the incredible progress they have made in making better contact with parents."

At Sir John Leman, Rowe has been proactive in engaging with families. "Since becoming an academy, we have increased the number of parent representatives on our governing body. With Twitter, texts and email, not to mention standing out in the rain talking to parents when they collect their children, it's all: 'engage, engage, engage'. Parents have 24-hours-a-day access to me.

"We are making ourselves available; schools have realised that's a good thing. But it doesn't mean parents should be able to set up their own schools - we are the ones in the education profession."

Therein lies the crux of the problem caused by the empowerment of parents: what happens when their view contradicts the opinion of the professionals?

According to Hobby, more needs to be done to keep parental opinions in check. "Schools are not customer services," he says. "The customer isn't always right. Good heads sometimes have to make unpopular decisions. We need boundaries and safeguards so that we are not basing decisions on the unfounded and exaggerated views of a small minority."

If schools make parents feel involved, he believes, they will be more likely to bow to the superior knowledge of the experts. "In nine out of 10 situations, if you get an unhappy parent in your office and listen to them, that will solve the problem. Where they feel powerless, that's when they will take more exaggerated steps. Teachers often forget how intimidating schools can be, particularly for parents who didn't enjoy school themselves.

"We need to do more to make it clear that schools are welcoming institutions. They are part of the community; they are owned by the community. You have to work one family at a time. You have to go to them rather than expecting them to come to you. But if you do that, the pay-off is incredible."

Schools need to keep their friends close, but there is an even greater incentive to keep potential enemies closer. From Beccles to Birkenshaw, there are plenty who can testify to the dangers of leaving parents feeling disillusioned and disenfranchised.

Comment, page 48


If you thought parents being able to open schools was a worrying development, be thankful you do not live in California; there, they can get them shut down.

Under the so-called "parent trigger" law, they have the power - if a petition is backed by at least 51 per cent of the parents - to sack a school's principal, replace its staff, convert it to a privately managed charter school or close it.

"This legislation is allowing parents to finally take a stand," says Lydia Grant, a member of Parent Revolution, the not-for-profit group that pushed for the legislation.

So far, the law has been used just once since it was introduced two years ago.


49% would talk to the school

35% would work with other parents on the Parent Teacher Association or governing body

30% would move their child to another school

6% would set up their own free school

Source: Report by Family LivesPearson, September 2011.

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