Parent power – just another piece of populist spin?

And their parents?

A few weeks ago Gordon Brown declared that he wanted to make schools more accountable to parents. The National Union of Teachers spat back that this was just a bit of “populist spin”.  After all, they argued in their press release, “Schools already work with parents and governors to ensure that information is fully available to the local community”.  As my kids would say, “Yeh, sure.”

Some sorts of information, it would appear, are rather more available to parents than others however.  My daughters’ school is currently being run by one of the government’s newest beasts, the Interim Executive Board, an unelected and apparently entirely unaccountable group of “experienced educationalists” which replaced the governing body when the school went into Special Measures a year ago.  It took the Parent Forum seven months to get our lovely shiny IEB to agree to “publish” its minutes. Publish in this context means sticking them on a notice board inside the school where parents seldom tread and refusing to put them on the school website.  And funnily enough, despite massive changes taking place in the school every week, the minutes say little more than the date of the meeting and who was there and are posted approximately six weeks after the event.

Now they are setting up a “shadow governing body” for an unlimited timespan.  At last, we thought, a chance for parents to stand to be elected as governors and have some say in what it going on.  We had been promised elections a few months ago, but now we are told that the new governing body will be made up of the same old “experienced educationalists” plus three hand-picked new members: a parent, a member of staff and someone from the local community.  No elected trouble-makers here please.

But this worrying lack of stakeholder accountability extends well beyond Schools Causing Concern, such as ours where some might argue you need emergency measures to deal with emergency situations.  In her column last week in the Education Guardian, Fiona Millar describes how, despite massive protests from parents and other local people in the London Borough of Camden, the local authority has decided to go ahead with an Academy run by a “preferred sponsor” (preferred by the local authority that is).  What worries her is that the legislation around Academies means that their governing bodies can be entirely dominated by the sponsor, whether it be a creationist accountancy firm or a used car salesman with a side interest in selling cigarettes to young women in developing countries.

She writes: “Meanwhile, the academies experiment is still being rolled out with a vengeance, and is making a nonsense of local community empowerment. The wholly controlled governing bodies put in place by the sponsors are often fronts for more shadowy charitable trusts that make the real decisions – such as appointment of the head – from headquarters that are often hundreds of miles from the schools they control.”

The Conservatives have been a bit vague so far about what sort of schools they want to have in the future but they seem to be quite taken with the idea of parents running schools themselves following what is described attractively as a Swedish model.  A recent MORI poll however suggests that this is not really what most parents want.  Only 11% of parents thought parents themselves were the best people to run schools preferring local authorities (39%) or teachers (32%).  7% said they would definitely get involved in setting up a school if they could.  Another 36% said they might help.  A reality check based on our own experience and other research reminds us that the good intentions expressed in a questionnaire are not a reliable guide to who will actually turn up on the night.  But if they did build the school and the people came, how accountable would this small band be to everyone else in the local community?

Governing bodies may not be perfect, and it is going to be interesting to see what the new Education White Paper (watch this space) says about how they should operate in the future.  But whoever runs the schools, they remain public services and therefore need to have governance structures in place which make them fully accountable to all the key stakeholders.  This is not just about getting better at telling people what they are doing after they have decided to do it (which I suppose would be a start) but about involving them in developing the vision for their school and making the important decisions about its future.  We need to take a hard look at what is happening to schools and make sure that the reality starts to match the politicians’ rhetoric.

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