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What do parents want from school boards?

The good news is that four out of five schools have a board, despite persistent stories that boards are failing up and down the country. The recent round of elections has seen a modest increase. The bad news is that there were polls in only 15 per cent of elections. In other words, parental representatives for most boards are identified and persuaded to stand to the number required.

There is not a rush to give democratic choice and therefore one purpose of the 1988 School Boards Act is being lost. Parent candidates are not required to set out their reasons for standing and their ideas about the future direction of the school, with electors then able to choose among differing personalities and approaches.

Last month's discussion paper on Parents as Partners asks whether the present electoral system is the right one. The question differs from that facing Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and his committee studying whether Britain should be moving towards proportional representation. It is more about the formality of board elections, which in some measure replicates that of local government procedures.

Parents who see themselves as partners with teachers in their children's education, as the Government hopes they are, do not want to write a manifesto or to expose themselves to a ballot in which they may be defeated. Few have the ambition to lead. That may be a pity in that schools could benefit from board members with vision and determination. But, as headteachers are aware, it can be a boon if the ambitious were to turn out to be pushy, or mounted on their own hobby horse.

The discussion paper lays out the option of increasing boards' powers. Does apathy stem from a feeling of powerlessness? South of the border where governors make more of a splash, their powers exceed those of board members. They have more of a role in financial and staffing matters. The headteacher has to pay greater heed. Extending the scope of boards would mean giving them what were called "ceiling powers" when the legislation was discussed 10 years ago. Suspicion of the Government's consumerist motives removed the upper tier of powers as parents made clear that they had no desire to take on the running of the school. Hostility to the subsequent Self-Governing Schools Act strengthened that view.

A decade later devolved management is in place, increasing headteachers' responsibilities. The reformed education authorities are intended to be enabling rather than interventionist. Is it time to revisit the nature of boards? In power, Labour is less fixed in its ideas about embedding parental rights and responsibilities than Helen Liddell was as opposition spokesman. The discussion paper leaves the way open for debate in individual boards and parent-teacher associations.

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