Why throw out the good with the bad?

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Parents have not been the driving force behind the decision to replace school boards, says Ian Findlay

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A hackneyed enough phrase to be sure, but I feel I have lived with it for the past two and a half months. There has to be a reason, a context, and there was indeed. During that time, extensive consultations, run by both the Scottish School Board Association and the Scottish Civic Forum, have taken place throughout Scotland on the proposals to "replace" school boards with parent forums via new legislation.

Much heat and passion have been in evidence, but it has to be said that, out of the dark, light has emerged (and some brilliant and insistent beams of it at that). At this stage, after the end of formal consultation, it is worthwhile trying to chart clearly what messages have been heard and to ask, as one wise director of education asked me recently: "Will they listen?"

I might add: "How will most of us know whether they have listened - if the results are available only in the Scottish Executive library and on the website on July 5, after school holidays have begun?"

Nevertheless, what are these points of light? First, there is widespread and acute concern about the prospect of a separation in the close working relationship between headteacher and school board that has been characteristic (and I mention this as a trainer of boards) of the best school boards.

Second, what is vaguely suggested as improvement in the appointment of depute heads and heads causes anxiety and fears for loss of parental partnership.

Third, there is no place for co-opted members - a group who have given much expertise to boards and, in some cases, continuity and stability. And councillors do not continue to appear as advisers in the new dispensation, yet another potential break of partnership, this time with the education authority.

Finally, the prospect that every parent forum may set up mechanisms in its own way suggests localised chaos rather than national guidance or local flexibility.

As well as these concerns, there has been one glaring and vital omission from most of the debate. I refer to the place of the effective and proactive school board (or whatever adapted leadership body may follow it) within the national school quality agenda. The Standards in Scotland's Schools Act 2000 introduced the now familiar five national priorities, the local authority's derivative improvement objectives and the concept of the school development plan. And the same Act gave boards, among other stakeholders, the right to consultation and participation on the school development plan.

The inspectorate's How Good Is Our School? series focused this more sharply, especially in the area of ethos, values, citizenship, community.

The best boards (and again I write as a trainer) have improved this "sharing in qualitysupporting standards and management role" in the past five years. Others could have followed if the present proposals had not discouraged such a forward momentum. In effect, the 2000 Act has been ignored (except for one insignificant parenthetic reference) and an impression left that only two factors (repeal of the 1988 school board legislation and the introduction of its replacement) tell the whole story.

Another vital factor to be considered can be characterised as a breaking of faith by the Scottish Executive Education Department to boards in general.

Strong words. But it is difficult to see how another explanation fits the facts. In March last year, the SEED held a series of consultative forums with school board chairs across Scotland. These were well received, as indeed they deserved to be, as a genuine attempt to sound out opinion on the way ahead, and to detect the strengths and weaknesses of boards.

A collated national list of such strengths and weaknesses was produced with the intention of tweaking boards towards enhancement of strengths and reduction of weaknesses. The use of the word "replace" in the Making the Difference document negated this promise and arguably contributed largely to the alarm and despondency shown in every consultative evening held in the past months.

What strengths and weaknesses? Too many to list, but typical of the first were participation, partnership and trustful working with headteachers to establish an effective school. Of the second, formality and the unattractiveness of boards and their election processes, as well as mystification as to their role and purpose.

The debate has been bedevilled by polarisation between extremes - the "old and bad" and the "brave and new". Such extremism is never the answer. What is needed is a new model which combines the best of both. How to combine the "activity in quality partnership" of the board with the "open democracy" of the forum?

A picture comes to mind of a cartwheel. The hub is the parent leadership-decision-partnership-whole school consultation body which could succeed to the mantle of the old board. The forum of all parents would form the outer circle. The spokes would be the communication links between the two (task groups, working parties, subcommittees and co-operation with the parent teacher association if one is still there). A duty would be placed upon the central group to consult regularly with the full parent body.

Without doubt, there can be criticism of the specific example. But if the mechanism of parent representation isn't completely broke, why completely rather than partially fix it? Why, as so many have said in the past month or two, throw the baby out with the bath water?

Ian Findlay is a member of the Scottish School Board Association executive and vice-chair of Alford Academy school board in Aberdeenshire.

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