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The trouble with parents

Parents' groups, like any organisations, have their own power and politics. Now two of Scotland's biggest groups are at loggerheads over a range of thorny education issues - Section 28 not the least of them. Raymond Ross reports on the differing views espoused by the Scottish School Board Association and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council - and the Scottish Consumer Council, and asks who really speaksfor parents?

With the row over Section 28 and the remarkable mess that the Scottish School Board Association got itself into, it seems that nearly everyone in the country is claiming to speak on behalf of Scottish parents. But who really does represent them?

If we are to judge by the Scottish Executive's plans for a new National Strategy Group, which meets for the first time on February 24, the main representative bodies are the Scottish School Board Association, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and the Scottish Consumer Council. Along with directors of education, they will convene as an informal advisory group three or four times a year, and report to Ministers "as and when". Their job, under the education Bill going through the Scottish Parliament, is "to oversee the development of a national strategy on parental involvement in schools education."

But who are all these people who claim to speak for parents and - more seriously - why do they seem to be forever arguing with each other? The SSBA, for example, is "very comfortable" with the idea of working with the SPTC and the SCC, but the SCC and the SPTC have reservations about each other, and the SPTC has doubts about the SSBA.

Section 28 and the row this month over whether its repeal would lead to promotion of homosexuality in schools hasn't helped. It has put the SSBA very much in the public eye, particularly when its campaign against the repeal appeared briefly to be bankrolled by millionaire businessman Brian Souter. Now the SPTC says "it isn't possible" to work closely with the SSBA, on "principle".

Set up in 1991, the SSBA has an executive board of 33 members, 32 nominated and elected to represent local authority areas with a further representative for special education. Its main remit, according to the chief executive Ann Hill, is "to encourage partnership in education, representing the views of parents and teachers on school boards and sharing best practice between school boards.

"We do most of the country's school board training; we have a regular newsletter and we run a problem-solving service for school boards who may need training.

"We give advice on how to work with headteachers and schools, how to set up an agenda and we give advice on subjects as varied as bullying, where to make a complaint, how to run an effective school board, how to set up a PTA and work with that PTA. School boards have a legal duty to set up PTAs where they don't exist.

"We communicate with members and others through our newsletter and website. We hold regular meetings with local authorities and directors of education and we run a lot of national and international conferences." Mrs Hill welcomes the national strategy group as "a good way to get people together to see what we can learn from each other and do together". But other partners are less sure about working together.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council, founded in 1948 to establish a working partnership between parents and teachers, feels it is being marginalised. "Our role is to offer comfort, insurance and assurance to parent teacher associations and we make a lot of effort to keep in touch through newsletters, low-key visits to schools, through listening to people and picking up the vibes," says Judith Gillespie, SPTC development manager.

"The issues parents contact us about tend to be bread and butter ones like 'bossy' headteachers, wrangles over PTA funds and the type of constitution they should adopt. They don't get engaged with government issues.

"We represent grassroots parents, but school boards have become the eminent group because local authorities have to talk to them. They don't talk to PTAs because they are voluntary organisations, but school boards were set up by law and membership is determined by law."

The SPTC's future has been "problematic" ever since school boards were set up, says Judith Gillespie. "We are not in the Government's pocket and we are not part of the establishment. Funded by membership alone, we are the only independent parents' voice.

"I think we have been marginalised because we have not danced to the Executive's tune. They've never forgiven us for being so critical over targets".

The SPTC has agreed in principle to join the National Parents Strategy Group, pending an executive decision tomorrow.

The third partner, the Scottish Consumer Council, set up in 1975 with core funding from the Department of Trade and Industry, is basically a research organisation. "Our role is not to represent parents in education but to promote their interests towards an informed debate. It's an important distinction," says Jackie Welsh, the SCC's policy manager.

"Our raison d'etre is to promote the consumer interest in education, that of the users, the parents.

"Parents contact us at the end of their tether, when they've tried all other avenues and are desperate. But we are a research organisation and don't take up individual complaints. We advise where to go. Our relationship with the SPTC has been supportive in the past," says the SCC's Jackie Welsh, "but this is not so much the case now, because of divergent views on the issue of a national research body."

The SCC wants a national parents' research body to present evidence on parents' views on education. "It's appropriate we should be placed at policy level by doing groundwork for setting up a national parents' research body which can feed into policy making decisions," says Ms Welsh.

"There is a gap for consumers in education and we want to develop this research body on its own two feet. The SCC wouldn't be in it but will do work for it. While some schools are very good at keeping parents informed, there is still a need for information at a national level. The curriculum has changed radically since many parents were at school. There is a clear need for information. Section 28 demonstrates that most parents don't know what goes on in schools."

Judith Gillespie of the SPTC disagrees. "If you want to research into parents' attitudes, you do it as and when you need to. You don't need a standing body," she says. "You can do surveys until you're blue in the face. But that isn't representing parents' views. You can't represent parents as if it's an opinion poll. You have to ask the right questions. Education is not a consumer good.

"If the Government decides to fund the SCC's national research body, I don't see the SPTC having a role beyond that of an insurance office. Insuring PTAs for public liability is important, but it's not everything. We would become marginalised. If the Government decided the SSBA should cover PTA insurance, we'd be dead."

Mrs Gillespie also feels that the SSBA is "too close to Government" to maintain independence and the same would be true of the national research body. "The key to all of this is how to control the parent body," she says. "This is why the Executive isn't speaking to us but is rushing around trying to placate school boards. They control parents by putting them on committees and ignoring them. It's about politics and power, not representing parents."

Jackie Welsh insists the national parents' research body would be independent. "It might be a body of appointed members or elected members from other voluntary organisations, an umbrella organisation. Independence from Government is important if we're to feed into the policy-making process."

Ann Hill also insists that "the SSBA has a good relationship with the Scottish Executive but is independent and non-political. Look at our track record on national testing and Section 28. We're here to serve members, not Government. But we will work with Government to encourage parents to support education."

The SPTC says "it isn't possible" to work with the SSBA due to Section 28. "The difference is fundamental. It's one of principle and our principle is one of non-prejudice. We provide facts.

"The real issue is: are kids being exposed to inappropriate material? Section 28 only refers to one kind of stuff and doesn't address the real parental issue - that pupils can be exposed to lots of inappropriate material to do with sex - including heterosexual pornography - drugs and violence. Section 28 is irrelevant."

Ann Hill argues: "We have never been out of touch with our members over Section 28. We represent the views of parents on this one as media support shows.

"We have concerns about lack of consultation with school boards on the matter, though I do agree that Section 28 deals too much with one set of people, the homosexual community. We need to review all the guidelines and all the materials before repealing it."

Although there is no unanimity among the proposed members of the new National Parents Strategy Group, Mrs Gillespie says this reflects the real situation for parents. "Parents' views are often divided. That division, those differences, need to be represented. People don't speak with a single voice on most issues," she says.

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive says: "There are many parents' groups and it would be impossible to include them all (on the NPSG). However, each has important strengths and we do not believe there are too many. But we hope they will continue to work together."

The Executive also hopes to set up a parents' website by April, run by the National Grid for Learning and maintained by the Scottish Executive.

What the parents say

Jessica Burns, parent, Balfron High School: "I was on the school board from 1994 to 1996 but found it unsatisfying. The range of options was limited with a very restricted input to policy. I support PTA activities but have never been involved. The fathers tend to be on the school board where there's more would-be power brokering, while the wives organise the sales of work etc for the PTA.

"The idea of Scottish Consumer Council involvement is baloney. Parents are not the consumers of education. Children are. Parents have an outdated perception of what school is. In order to be skilled up to judge education, you'd have to bombard parents with more information than they could possibly assimilate. The consumer lobby has gone far too far.

"It doesn't surprise me that the SSBA opposed the repeal of Section 28 and then backed down. It is highly unrepresentative of parents' views. It's not as if the people elected to the SSBA are elected because we know their values or what they stand for."

Lita Murray, parent, Reston Primary, Berwickshire: "I've been on the school board for two years but wasn't really aware of the SSBA until Section 28 blew up. I'm for the repeal because I don't think something should be banned when discussion would help people. At first I didn't feel the school board had much clout but a recent day's training has opened my eyes and I want to be more active.

"We have a very good relationship with the headteacher and a cohesive staff as well as a very active PTA. I suppose our school is quite isolated, so all the brouhaha about Section 28 doesn't really affect us very much."

Colin Lesenger, parent, Broomlands Primary School (Nursery), Kelso: "I'd vaguely heard of the SSBA before their trouble over Section 28 hit the media. Broomlands has a very strong PTA and it's trying to establish a school board. It's early days for us as parents. I used to think education was best left entirely to the professionals, the teachers, but I feel now that parents should take an active interest. As a parent I feel very much welcomed in the nursery and involvement is positively encouraged by the headteacher. I know on a daily basis what's happening in my daughter's education, but I've never felt the urge to join the PTA or the proposed school board. Maybe that's because I'm happy with the way things are at present. "This whole thing over Section 28 I'm not sure about. It's hard to tell from conflicting media reports whether parents have been, or are being, properly informed."

Paul Reilly, parent, Leith Walk Primary, Edinburgh: The school has a good atmosphere and a high profile, partly thanks to the work done by the PTA. I'm not a member but support their activities. The PTA's work has helped create a good community feeling, especially for an inner city school. We have a school board, but I had never heard of the SSBA before Section 28. As parents, we support the repeal. There's a lot of hysteria and misinformation and I'm glad the SSBA is at last consulting its members. I'd hope most folk on school boards are not tabloid readers and so will vote for the repeal."

Ann Gallagher, parent, St Peter's RC Primary, Glasgow: "Our school has a PTA which I'm not a member of but do support. I've known of the SSBA's existence since the Tory days of opting out. We don't have one, but I do believe in school boards and that parents should be involved in their children's education.

"I see school boards as more advisory than anything else. You should have a say, especially if things go wrong. I don't believe in out-and-out parent power but there should be give and take between parents and teachers.

"I'd vote to keep Section 28, because my son is only seven. I know there's been a lot of scaremongering about it and I don't believe half the stories. I'm certainly not homophobic but I'm very, very cautious. Maybe it's a mother thing. But when you open the floodgates, how far do you open them? We have had no questionnaires, no consultation in any official capacity, about repealing Section 28."

David Main, parent, Tynecastle High School, Edinburgh: "I see PTAs as fundraisers and helpers with no legal status. School boards are not as the Tories envisaged and, as a school board member, it's as far as I think you want to go. I wouldn't want parents to run the education system or to have too much power. You have to trust the teachers and local authorities.

"I think the SSBA's stand against repealing Section 28 could lead to a split. Nine of our 10 members, all whom were at our last meeting, opposed the SSBA's position - and the tenth has since agreed our position by phone.

"The SSBA has been taken over by a clique spouting their own opinions. It's not school boards but the SSBA which was against repealing the section. It is meant to be a co-ordinating committee reflecting opinion, but they act as independent delegates rather than mandated delegates. They are certainly out of touch with our school board. On important issues the SSBA should be mandated by members."

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