In the 1950s, parents were up in arms about the “horror comics” craze sweeping the country and progressive campaigners were fighting to prevent children disappearing from school to join in the backbreaking work of the October “tattie holidays”.
It’s tempting to look back on the quaint concerns of another era with a wry smile, but some parental concerns have remained the same for decades, while others make repeat appearances with the unerring regularity of the seasons: think class sizes, budget cuts, teacher industrial action and the apparently destructive influence of new technology.
Through it all, parents have been seeking greater influence on the workings of Scottish schools and – according to head of a parents’ organisation celebrating its 70th birthday – they have only really made that breakthrough in the past few years.
Connect – known until last month as the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and, before that, the Council of Parent-Teacher Associations of Scotland – has been dusting off its archives to reveal how its priorities and influence have changed over seven decades.
Executive director Eileen Prior says the really big change is, where once the priority was simply for parents’ voices to be heard, now parents want to influence children’s learning. According to research, she says, “parental engagement is what makes a difference to children’s outcomes”.
In an interview with Tes Scotland, Prior laughs as she reads about a 1950 presentation to her predecessors from an Edinburgh psychologist Baroness Vera von der Heydt on corporal punishment – less about whether it was a good idea, it seems, than how to effectively administer a damn good thrashing.
But the pedagogical power balance of that era now seems equally alien: “School was very much the sphere of the professionals who worked there: they would educate your children and you just had to get them there on time, washed and polished and ready to learn,” says Prior.
The “sea change” in attitudes has been “fairly recent”, she says. The 2006 Parental Involvement Act was a watershed, enshrining the value of parental involvement in learning, rather than parents being restricted to more peripheral, administrative school activities.
But Scottish education has not taken full advantage of the act, she fears, because it was followed by a raft of other big changes. Not least a new curriculum and new qualifications, which saw the issue of parental involvement become “lost”.
Overall, however, Prior is upbeat: compared to when she took on her post in 2010, she says, government policy documents have a far stronger emphasis on involving families in education, while she believes schools are “beginning to see they have a tremendous resource in their families”.
And she wants to bust the “myth” that this resource stems primarily from middle-class communities. “Some of the most engaged communities we’ve worked with have been in deprived areas – parents there are absolutely passionate about their children doing well, and better than they did,” says Prior.
Chartering a course
But she fears that aspiration is sometimes stymied by poor communication and education that “builds a bit of a wall around the profession” and can make even school newsletters hard to decipher. Schools often do not realise that some parents may not understand terms such as “curriculum” if they have barely encountered them before.
She is also concerned that a “wee bit of a blame culture” around perceived failings of parents has grown in recent years. She finds it hard to say exactly where that has come from, but the controversial Named Person scheme, where professionals such as teachers would be appointed to oversee children’s wellbeing, may be a factor.
“We should be supporting families who are struggling, not pointing a finger at them and saying ‘You’re not doing well enough’, because that gets us nowhere,” she says.
Prior believes Scotland is “way ahead” of many other countries in involving parents at school, although there is no clamour for an English-style systems of governors. “I think that we have high levels of trust in our educators,” she says, adding that parents have a “massive contribution to make but they don’t want to run the school”.
She has concerns about some aspects of the Education (Scotland) Bill, notably the proposed Headteachers’ Charter, which would devolve more power to school leaders. Members tell her that good heads already have “high levels of autonomy” and work closely with parents. They fear that those headteachers worried about the changes may not be able to cope with more responsibility.
And already she sees signs that heads who are sceptical about parental involvement are kicking back. “There are schools out there saying ‘Get your nose out of my business’,” she says. “Unfortunately we have been at the receiving end in recent months more than before – I do attribute that, I’m afraid, to a misunderstanding of what the Headteachers’ Charter and whatnot will actually mean for heads.
“Some have interpreted it as ‘That gives me more power and authority to push back’, if they are not keen on parental involvement.”
That is a major error, she believes, because if heads do not see that parental involvement is “fundamental to school improvement, [they’re] going to struggle”.
Overall, however, Prior has a very positive view about the progress parents have made in recent times: “We’re now no longer standing outside knocking on the school door – we’re in the door.”