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A very British problem

The current shenanigans at the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations could easily be dismissed as gossip column fodder. But they are in fact highly significant from the policy point of view, and have occurred at just the right moment.

The Government is currently considering how best to increase the involvement of parents in education - and we could hardly have a more telling demonstration of why the NCPTA is not the right way to do it.

For a start, it is no longer appropriate - if it ever was - to rely on a body which attempts to combine the interests of parents and teachers. The teachers have their own strong national bodies; parents should have one too.

In fact, compared with many other countries, the British system is notable for the complete lack of say normally given to parents at any level of influence above that of the individual school. British parents do not sit on ministerial advisory committees - as they do in France, Germany and Spain. In Denmark, parents are even represented on the committees which review the national curriculum.

One reason for Britain's backwardness on this count is that there is no proper national structure for involving parents. Governments have had to depend on the warring voices of the NCPTA for an expression of the parent's point-of-view.

Parental involvement in education has two key aspects. Many British parents become involved in their own child's education at primary level - supporting their child's learning at home, fundraising, helping in the classroom and, more rarely, as school governors.

Where this country does fall down is on the public participation of parents, and what kind of attention is paid to their views. The Government is beginning to change the status quo by proposing to give parents limited say in local authority policy making - but they make no mention of any influence at national level, and the structure for ensuring it does not exist.

With the NCPTA in such disarray, now is the moment to scrap it, and design from scratch a properly representative parents' movement. It should grow from the grassroots - preferably the classroom. Many European countries have class councils: the parents of all the children in a particular class meet regularly to discuss issues ranging from outings and fundraising to children's progress and the curriculum. As our report on page 10 shows, this arrangement, though rare, is not unknown in Britain. When it works well the teachers reap rewards in parental support. Class councils could elect half a dozen of their number to a school council or home-school association of the type which the Government wants to encourage.

Parents' associations constructed in this way would mean that every school would have a strong body which could be drawn on to provide local - or indeed national - representatives. A good example is Ireland's National Parents' Council for primary schools which, drawing on school-based associations, played a major role in drafting the country's reforming White Paper for education.

Parents represent an enormous resource for education, and deserve to be taken seriously. David Blunkett has yet to demonstrate that he sees them as genuine partners with a stake in the system and a right to be heard.

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