Take on board the need for cash;Opinion

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
It hardly seems a year since the Government's manifesto famously stated that school boards were dismal, top-down failures, Tory-imposed and therefore alien and naturally unpopular. They were to be replaced by something fuzzy called a commission which covered several schools - a structure swollen by healthsocial workers and other local worthies. (This latter has recently been roundly rejected by parents.) Since then, of course, Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, has shown much good sense and not a little realpolitik by recognising that boards in their present form are actually rather a good idea.

The Scottish School Board Association has done excellent work and earned solid respect with its track record - in drugs and school transport to name but two initiatives. Boards now exist in 85 per cent of all Scottish schools: numbers are increasing steadily.

In the context of his recent consultation paper Parents as Partners - the minister made clear that he now values school boards highly. Potentially they represent the kind of partnership between parents and school which this Government, and the last, wished to see widely established.

But boards are not without their ill-wishers. Readers may recall that the school board association's survey on the consultation paper called forth a petulant response from Scotland's largest teaching union. A letter sent to every school by the Educational Institute of Scotland suggested that boards be persuaded to ignore the survey. Perhaps they thought it would go away.

The association countered with a letter to board chairpersons suggesting that discussion be not stifled, and saying the EIS should trust in parents.

In the event the response to the SSBA survey has been hefty, and the Government will now consider parent reaction to its proposals for extending the role and responsibilities of boards.

Interestingly local authorities are no better disposed to Government inclinations to beef up the boards. The partnership vision has been rather brushed aside by council after council. Unanimously they have urged the Government to dismiss proposals for substantial change.

In their enthusiasm for the status quo and their fear of formal and litigious frameworks, authorities have perhaps produced a knee-jerk response, ignoring some of the constructive suggestions and possibilities coming from boards and parents.

For example the school board association's training courses offer excellent value and cry out to be taken more seriously by authorities. Perhaps the minister might consider making the association the national training body for board members and others? Quality training for parents on the role of the school board, effective meetings, and effective communication were successfully piloted last year with the agreement of the Association of Directors of Education, and this year will be nationally available.

On pilot this year are courses on appointing senior staff in schools and on board training for headteachers, teacher members, and councillors. A variety of other courses are already available: on target setting, school development planning and so on.

There is no shortage of good material. The trouble is that boards do not have the wherewithal to pay for member training. Even at just pound;10 a head, the added cost of travel often prohibits participation. Sadly two-thirds of board members are untrained.

Measures to strengthen parental participation must allow for a realistic school-board training budget. Teachers have their in-service training, and parents as partners need no less. Incidentally, the last Government allocated pound;10 million to local authorities to set up the boards. A fraction of that would now ensure standardised quality training.

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