From the creation of league tables to allowing people to express a preference for the school that their child will attend, promoting the interests of parents has been the focus of education reforms for decades.
But in recent years, concerns have been raised that the parental voice is getting lost in a fast-changing schools system. There are fears that the multi-academy trust model has made it more difficult for parents to reach those responsible for decisions at their children’s schools.
“When the academy trust model was being set up, it was not being designed with the thought that the whole system might look like this,” says Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association. “I think parental accountability has not been thought about enough.”
The change has emerged gradually as the MAT system has evolved, but parents are beginning to find themselves restricted in their opportunities to exert any influence over how their children’s schools are run.
One key factor is the fact that responsibility for all schools in a MAT rests with the central board of trustees. So the usual vehicle for parental power – the individual school governing body – has lost all its direct legal control over schools and can become little more than a fundraising body.
In 2016, the government appeared to make the position of parent governors even more uncertain, when the Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper suggested that they were no longer necessary.
“We will expect all governing boards to focus on seeking people with the right skills for governance, and so we will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards,” the paper said.
Justine Greening, as education secretary, signalled a U-turn over the government’s plan later that year when questioned by MPs. “I don’t think we should be saying MATs don’t need to have parents,” she told the Commons Education Select Committee. “Parent governors play a vital role, actually.”
However, concerns remain about where parents fit into this changing landscape.
Knights has raised the issue with the DfE and been invited by national schools commissioner Sir David Carter to discuss it with MAT chief executives. She believes that parental engagement in schools needs to be promoted at a national level.
“The National Governance Association is not surprised at the low numbers of free schools set up by parents,” she says.
“Indeed, we predicted this when they were first proposed: starting a school is a huge enterprise which takes a large amount of time, which very few parents have going spare.
“Despite the DfE’s warm words three years ago on the need to improve engagement with and accountability to parents, very little has been done to support schools to make this work well.”
Other campaigners agree. Michelle Doyle Wildman, the acting chief executive of Parentkind, formerly PTA UK, believes that although “everybody gets it” in government, a single team within the department needs to be given ownership of the issue.
She argues that clear national guidelines should be given to all schools on how they need to involve parents, and suggests Ofsted inspections could assess “how well schools are doing on participating with stakeholders – principally parents”.
“We know what a powerful driver for change this can be,” she adds. “We think every school in the country should have a parent body which has a clear line of sight to local governing boards and boards of trustees. It should be a consultative body which parents can get involved with.”
But she fears that school decision-making is becoming further removed from parents and that this is an issue “bubbling away under the surface”. Doyle Wildman suggests that the system has not yet reached a tipping point where this becomes a predominant concern of parents.
However, with the number of MAT-run schools rising, she adds: “This is going to become much more pertinent in the months and years ahead.”
There has also been an increased focus in recent weeks on engaging parents in the education debate. This month, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told Tes that he believed parents would be key in pressuring ministers into giving schools more funding.
This was echoed by parent Helen Jackman, speaking at the North West Education Summit in Manchester last month. She has helped to organise a march in Penrith, Cumbria, to highlight school funding as an issue. “When headteachers talk, parents will listen; but when parents talk, politicians listen,” she said.
Both Doyle Wildman and Knights see more work with MATs as a priority. In the past, a parent who wanted to raise an issue with their local school would know to go to the head. But Ms Knights points out that in a MAT, that head is no longer the most senior person in the organisation responsible for the school.
She also highlights the concern that some MATs might be geographically removed from the schools and communities they serve. It raises the question, she says, “who do schools belong to?”
Earlier this year, she called on government to resolve this issue by throwing open the control of academy trusts to include parents and the wider community to ensure that MATs had local legitimacy.
Currently, a handful of legally designated “members” sit at the top of MATs with the ability to appoint and remove trustees and agree accounts.
Knights’ vision is that parents and other interested people in the community could become members of an academy trust.
At the time, the DfE did not respond directly to the suggestion but said: “While overall accountability rightly sits at trust level, trust boards can, and do, delegate functions to local governing bodies that oversee individual schools.”