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What future now for parents' lobby?

Jeremy Sutcliffe reports as the Charity Commissioners complete their inquiry

Next week the Charity Commissioners are expected to present the leaders of Britain's biggest parents' association with a confidential and potentially explosive report, following an in-depth inquiry into its affairs.

At stake is not only the question of whether the 40-year-old National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations has been mismanaged, to the financial benefit of three of its former trustees, but that of what sort of organisation it should be.

Its findings will bring to a head years of wrangling between rival factions, and may offer a resolution. The arguments are complicated, not least by the fact that they have been pursued with increasing acrimony, with personality clashes often leading to bitter personal attacks.

But essentially the argument appears to be between reformers and traditionalists. The reformers say they want a more professional organisation, run by a full-time chief executive, providing a clearer and more representative voice on behalf of parents, and more willing to campaign for parental interests. The traditionalists, currently in the ascendant, argue that the present leadership already represents grass-roots views effectively.

In recent years, these arguments have led to the appointment, and rapid departures, of two full-time professionals. Six years ago, Philip Woods, appointed general manager only six months before, was dismissed after a weekend meeting of the executive committee. And last year Michael Pepper, a former project leader with the Benefits Agency, walked out three months after being appointed to a newly-created post of chief executive.

The confederation's present difficulties stem from the removal of two prominent members from the NCPTA board of trustees last year. The two, chairman-elect and Labour councillor Sean Rogers and Sandi Marshall, a former television journalist, called in the commissioners in November after complaining about the organisation's management and financial controls.

As a result of their complaints, three paid NCPTA employees - including its high-profile press officer, Margaret Morrissey, a Dorset publican and former Conservative parliamentary candidate - have been asked to resign by the commissioners and warned they could each be liable to repay tens of thousands of pounds in salaries and expenses.

A letter from the commissioners' investigating officer, Niall Mitchell, which has been seen by The TES, has told Mrs Morrissey, membership secretary Belinda Yaxley and treasurer Andrew Smetham, head of The Purbeck School in Wareham, Dorset, that under the NCPTA's constitution they were not entitled to take up their paid posts because at the time they were offered they were members of the organisation's executive committee.

The commissioners have now asked the NCPTA to urge the three employees to resign from their Pounds 10,000-a-year posts and take legal advice on recovering the money. All three, appointed between 1991 and 1994, say they did not believe they had acted improperly at the time they accepted their posts.

If the letter has come as a huge blow to the individuals concerned, who say they could be forced into bankruptcy if they are forced to repay years of salaries and expenses, the forthcoming report could have a similarly traumatic effect on the entire organisation.

The commissioners have draconian powers to suspend or remove trustees and to appoint a receiver and a manager to take over the running of a charity. Leading the call for the full weight of the commissioners' powers to be brought to bear are Sandi Marshall and Sean Rogers. "We need a fresh start," Ms Marshall said. "The NCPTA is too important to go down the tube."

The confederation's new chairman, Judith Wood, elected in place of Sean Rogers who has stood down pending the outcome of the commissioners' inquiry, pledged this week to "wholeheartedly accept" the inquiry findings, provided they were soundly based. She blamed a legacy of poor management, which she says is now in the past, for the current difficulties.

But whatever emerges from the inquiry, and whoever, if anyone, is blamed, the NCPTA is reaching an important crossroads in its development, which could see it emerge as an important player in the world of education, or see it sidelined as ineffective and unrepresentative. Both reformers and traditionalists seem to agree that a new Government offers the chance to raise their profile and increase their influence, after years of stagnating membership and poorly attended meetings.

The expected publication of a Government White Paper in the next few weeks will provide an early opportunity for it to seize the initiative, with ministers poised to announce plans to increase the number of parents on governing bodies. Labour is also working on requirements for local authorities to introduce statutory parental representation on education committees, elected by parent governors, and to establish parent forums. Such a framework could lead to an effective outlet for parental views - with statutory backing - for the first time at local level.

So far, there is no sign that the Government has plans to give statutory support - and funds - for a parental voice at national level, something for which the NCPTA has consistently campaigned.

But with Labour apparently determined to put in place the local machinery for a democratic, collective voice for parents, it can only be a matter of time before an alternative national network emerges.

A forthcoming report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development on parental involvement in education in nine countries, including Britain, is expected to underline the importance of parental involvement at all levels as a means of raising educational achievement.

Other Labour initiatives such as after-hours clubs, family literacy schemes and home-school contracts are likely to make the voice of parents more powerful than ever. Whether the NCPTA will play a central role may well depend on the outcome of the next few weeks.

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