Swinging pendulum of parent power

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Until the Sixties, the word "parents" barely got a mention in national reports. Parents were usually seen as inconvenient people, whose chief contribution in education was over once they had provided someone to occupy a school desk.

Beyond sending their children to school on time with a clean handkerchief, there seemed little for parents to do. Plowden was unusual in devoting a whole chapter to what was daringly called "Participation by parents". The committee commissioned research on the influence of parental attitudes and home background on children's achievement, producing some very interesting findings.

Two-thirds of unskilled working-class families had five books or fewer in their home. In professional households the figure was below 5 per cent. Moreover, there was a higher correlation between the attitudes of parents and children's reading scores than existed between reading competence and either the state of the school or home circumstances.

A correlation does not imply that one thing causes another. Parents' favourable attitudes might have been a response to their children doing well in reading, rather than the cause of it. Nevertheless, the message that mum and dad count most was soon taken up by many schools.

It amused me when ill-informed idiots like the former Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Clarke, claimed to have "buried the Plowden Report". Most of its recommendations on parents became official policy, and many were included in the 1980, 1988 and other Education Acts.

The recommendations included: giving parents a chance to meet their child's head- and class teacher before starting school; twice-yearly parents' meetings; conveniently timed open days; a booklet of information on each school; a written report at least once a year; open enrolment allowing free choice of any school; parents to help with out-of-school activities; and community use of buildings.

The decades since have produced some interesting developments. The rest of the Sixties and Seventies saw the introduction in many primary schools of parent- teacher associations. In some schools, the PTA was the most active social group in the area, and members of the community who did not have primary-age children eagerly attended its jumble sales and barn dances.

The message that mum and dad are most important translated itself into many positive initiatives to involve parents more actively through open evenings, reading to children at home, helping in the classroom, and attending events such as carol services and sports days. Playground signs stating "Parents must not proceed beyond this point" were replaced by noticeboards saying "Parents are welcome", often in several different languages. Sadly, today's emphasis on school security may send this process into reverse.

A decade of PTAs was followed by a decade of legislation. The Eighties saw a spate of Education Acts giving parents statutory rights. The 1980 Act provided a brochure on each school. The 1981 Act gave the right to see statements on a child with special educational needs. In 1986 parents officially became a quarter of each school's governing body. The 1988 Education Act offered open enrolment. Far from being a casualty of government policy, Plowden had actually become the blueprint of it.

Since then the climate has changed again. During the Nineties there has been some cynicism from parents. Rights are not the same as power. In the London borough of Bromley, they soon discovered that having the right to send your child to any school means that others from outside the area can come in and pinch your child's place. Many parent groups began to object to having to raise money for basics such as books, rather than for luxuries and extras.

There are signs of a swing away from parent power - not just for security reasons. Pressure from teacher and headteacher unions to strengthen schools' disciplinary powers may remove traditional rights that parents have acquired. The powers of governors have been questioned. Are they now too great, some people ask, especially when something has gone wrong in a school or when governors have tried to exceed their authority.

Other erosions include the introduction of more selection. If schools increasingly select children by ability or attainment, then parents have less say in where their children attend school, unless they can pass the necessary entrance tests. Compulsory opting out, something that appeals to politicians who hate local authorties, has also been mooted. It would be another removal of a right to vote.

Plowden on parents began a movement that was long overdue, recognising that parents can provide more than a set of genes. If the pendulum of power has now swung too far, then it will no doubt swing back again.

Michael Young and the other members of the committee recognised an important matter, not only of social justice but of educational sense. As the new century dawns, it would be a pity if their initiatives started to run into the buffers.

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