Schools need parents' views

1st May 2009 at 01:00

George Orwell would have been proud. "Scotland's education secretary is championing a `parent power' revolution," we have been told. She wants to set up a national body "to give families a stronger voice" on school issues.

Sheer newspeak. War is peace. Hate is love. Communication is silence. Any stronger voice will strike parents dumb.

At a time of significant curriculum changes, Fiona Hyslop went on, "the setting up of a new national parents' body to represent their views would give parents a voice and contribute to the key decisions affecting the education of their children".

Pity then that the big decisions regarding the new curriculum have already been taken. But then politicians have often paid lip service to parents' wishes, claiming the authority that comes from parental endorsement only when it suited them.

The creation of a national parents' body is not a revolution, it is a counter-revolution. If it comes to pass, it will not empower ordinary families; it can only misrepresent them, for parents are rarely a homogeneous group.

When Conservative education minister Michael Forsyth championed the introduction of school boards in the late 1980s, that was an authentic revolution. The legal rights granted to parents represented a genuine shift of power from the political elite to the masses - if they wished to take them up.

Parents were at first sceptical, if not suspicious, but, over the years as the political heat dissipated, the idea of a board became the norm rather than the exception. A myth was propagated that parents in deprived areas would not use the boards, but I received enough representations from them to know this was a malevolent lacuna of the left.

At the centre, politicians of all hues and their bureaucrats want everything tidy, with representatives of various interest groups like ducks in a row on the quangos that provide the charade of independent thought on curriculum, qualifications, bullying, well-being and the like. Quangocrat shall speak unto quangocrat. Educational corporatism at its most unattractive.

The sweet irony was Judith Gillespie, whose importance has been elevated due to the craving of our political elite and the media for a national spokeshuman for parents, pointing out in the same report that it was impossible for one organisation to represent all parents. Bang on, Judith.

I remember how Scotland's school boards voiced their concern about Wendy Alexander's rush to abolish section 2A on the promotion of homosexuality in schools, the changes in support for special educational needs or indeed the boards' own eventual abolition. Whatever the merits of those arguments, it's fair to say the parents' views were mere inconveniences in the pursuit of the political elite's dogma of the time.

If Fiona has her way, what we shall have is a super-charged, superannuated Judith who, after the children have long since left school, is still speaking for parents. Such a creation of the educational establishment represents no one but a subset of the establishment itself. If it coincides with the views of some parents, that is as much due to those being involved in the mother body being self-selecting of the establishment's collective wisdom as to anything else. This top-down approach does not empower ordinary parents: it disarms and debilitates them.

The natural place for parents is in their relationship with the school. The answer then is to decentralise the running of schools away from Fiona, away from the educational elite and down to the schools. If she wants a parent to hold her hand and talk to, she would be better looking in the mirror and having a conversation with herself as the parent she is.

Brian Monteith looks at himself in the mirror every morning.

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