There has been a whole lot of very interesting debate over the last few years about who the health service belongs to but what I’d really like to know is, who does the education service belongs to? I recently contributed to a government review of governance in schools (supposed to be published in October 2008 but still eagerly awaited). I was there to put forward the case for parental involvement but met with a depressingly familiar reaction from the teaching professionals: just who do these parents think they are ?
Who’s baking, who’s being heard?
Most schools will tell you they work hard to involve parents. But scratch below the surface and you will find that many are adhering to a conveniently self-serving model of parental involvement where in fact parents do most of the work. An “involved” parent is one who gets their child to school on time, helps with homework, encourages respect for teachers, bakes cakes for Parent Teacher Association events and turns up to parent evenings i.e a parent who is seen but not heard. Have a look at the average home school agreement and you will get the message “parents and their children must….(do what the school says)” , “the school will…(do what it likes)”.
But the government is now seeking to give parents much greater influence in what happens in schools. Since May 2007 all schools have had a duty to take account of the views of parents and are encouraged to set up Parent Councils to help them to do so. They even produced a useful, if poorly publicised, toolkit to help them to do it. But as yet, there has been no research into how many schools have set up Parent Councils or similar parent-led bodies or what, if anything, their impact has been. Are schools really beginning to take account of parental views or is it still the case that teacher (or the local authority) knows best?
Some people argue that having parents on governing bodies ticks the box as far as parental involvement in decision-making is concerned. This might work if anyone was at all clear about the role of parent governors. They are elected, but what is their role: to represent the forty or so parents who voted for them, to represent all parents, or simply to be themselves? Do they really know what other parents think and if so, how? Does the presence of parent governors mean that schools are absolved of their responsibility to find out for themselves what the generality of parents think or want? And we should not forget that many schools struggle to find any parents who are willing or able to sit on their governing body at all (and having spent four years as a governor myself I could suggest a few reasons why that might be).
Who’s Sorry Now?
Over the past three and a half years I have been closely involved in setting up and running a parent-led Forum at my daughters’ school. We had some successes but overall we felt that no-one appeared to be interested in our experiences or those of our children and that the school saw no real reason to respond to our concerns. Last February we asked parents to identify the top ten areas where we felt things needed to improve. They were all the same things we had been complaining about since the Forum’s very first meeting. Once again the school ignored us. A few days later the Ofsted inspectors arrived and wrote a damning report which (surprise, surprise) identified all the same failings that the parents had been rabbitting on about for years (plus a few more that we could feel but not quite put our unprofessional fingers on).
When a school is in “Special Measures” it can seek the Secretary of State’s permission to get rid of the governing body (in many schools the only place where parents can have their voices heard on matters of strategy) and replace it with something called an Interim Executive Board (IEB). This is what has happened in my daughters’ school and in our case the chair and the majority of the membership was made up of paid staff from the local authority – the very local authority that had got us into this mess in the first place. There is no requirement to include parents on the IEB or even for it to listen to parents and yet the IEB has all the same powers as a properly constituted governing body. They can change pretty much anything they like and even, as in my daughters’ school, appoint a new Head Teacher without consulting anyone.
In whose name?
Anyone who knows anything about what happens when a school “fails” its OFSTED inspection, will tell you that what follows is a period of huge stress and anxiety for everyone involved – including parents – and yet at this very time when major change is taking place, parents can be effectively cut out of the process. Our Parent Forum had to ask numerous times over a period of several months before the IEB even agreed to publish its minutes and we have not seen them yet although it is almost a year since the governing body was taken over and then disbanded. We have also been asking to see a plan for the future of our school – what is going to change? why? when? and how will we know whether the raft of changes and new initiatives has made a difference? No sign of that yet either although according to the school it was drawn up last July and they have been working to it since then.
The government is talking about streamlining governance arrangements in schools which probably means small governing bodies with people appointed for their skills rather than being elected by staff or parents. Pretty much like our IEB. In governance terms this makes a lot of sense, creating small focussed and professional bodies with the skills to run these important institutions properly. But our experience of such a body shows that little importance seems to be put on hearing the voice of parents – which is strange. These days, a skill set that does not include the techniques of gathering and acting on user and stakeholder opinion can be dismissed as dangerously introverted and incomplete. It is an old-fashioned management concept that refuses to share power and sees the participative approach as a threat to the quality of decision-making.
Whose Schools? (See where we started)
One way to address this might be to make Parent Councils or similar bodies compulsory in all schools and require governing bodies to listen to them. Properly run and resourced Parent Councils, perhaps with their own dedicated staff, would foster new dialogues between parents and school senior managers and governors. Institutional changes aside, we need to bring about a change in the culture of our schools and local authorities so that they understand that they are running schools for the benefit of children, their families and wider society and that they will only succeed in doing this when they by working in meaningful partnership with parents and carers and hearing what they say.