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 pound;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.

You can read the full article in the January 27 issue of TES

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