Who's afraid of parent power?
Alison Shepherd reports
Back in the days when the fledgling Labour government was testing out its vision of an education system run for parent voters, it introduced parent governor representatives.
Local councils were charged with placing between two and five of these PGRs, elected by fellow parent governors, on to scrutiny committees dealing with education to ensure that one set of stakeholders had a voice as policy was formulated.
But seven years on there are only 280 representatives out of a possible 750. Almost a third of England's local councils have only one rep, not the statutory two, while nine have none at all.
Yet according to a survey carried out by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, those councils with a full quota of PGRs find their input to be an effective and valuable part of the democratic process.
Buckinghamshire is one such authority. It has three PGRs representing the county's primary, secondary and special schools, and Roger Edwards, the lead scrutiny officer, says they would be sorely missed: "They bring a different view to the issues than the councillors on the committee. It is so easy for members to fall into the way that the council has 'always done it'. But the governors do not move in the same circles and can have a different view. They also ask very different questions."
When Buckinghamshire failed to fill two vacancies last year after sending out the usual nomination notices to its parent governors, rather than waiting six months to repeat the process, Mr Edwards decided to go searching for candidates. "We had by this time recognised their importance on the committee so when we did not get a reaction, I decided to be a little more proactive."
He placed an advertisement in the council's Governor Times newspaper including his direct line and also that of the serving PGR so that anyone interested could call and discuss exactly what the role involved. The proactive approach worked and an election filled the vacancy.
"It seemed to make a difference. I could give direct information on the advice and support they would receive and what they could achieve," he says.
But life for the county's PGRs has not always been so positive, according to Mr Edwards. "At first some councillors thought 'what are they doing here?', and could be unco-operative. But the reps have proved their worth and are now considered very valuable colleagues and are not seen as being any different to any other members."
Jane Martin, executive director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, believes that the negative attitude is still too prevalent and may account for many of the scrutiny committee vacancies across the country.
"Councils response to PGRs was not overwhelming," she says. "In my view governors are often the victims of a mentality that says they are not part of the whole local authority but just of the education authority. It is also difficult for people who come from outside local government to feel as though they can make an impact, particularly if there is only one parent on a committee - they can feel quite isolated. The more effort that can be given to engaging governors the better."
The centre, with the Department for Education and Skills, has tried to make life easier for the governors by providing an induction pack that is designed to "help new PGRs understand their role and the practical issues associated with being a volunteer 'citizen governor' ".
When launching the pack earlier this year, Dr Martin said: "The complexity of the task should not be underestimated, especially as PGRs are busy people carrying out this role in a voluntary capacity and may be new to a local government or committee environment."
A key element of that support recommended by the centre is a local authority mentor to help lead the new arrival through the mire of local politics. Tellingly, one respondee to the centre's survey dismisses all such help in four words: "too busy to mentor".
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A PGR?
Parent governor representatives (PGRs) are elected by other parent governors to represent the views of all parents, in an apolitical way, on local authority overview and scrutiny committees and sub-committees dealing with education.
PGRs have speaking rights on any issue under discussion by the committee, but may only vote on issues relating to education.
Each local authority must appoint at least two and not more than five PGRs to each committee or sub-committee dealing with education issues. One or more of these can be nominated by the dioceses of faith schools and are not elected.
PGRs serve a term of office of not less than two but no more than four years.
Local authorities are expected to provide induction, training and advice from the committee secretariat on such things as communicating with parents.
PGRs may also receive expenses and allowances in line with those received by councillors on the committee.