School boards may have had their day. But has anyone got any better ideas?

"What does it say to people about the importance of a school board, if you tell them 'It doesn't matter what you call it and you can set it up however you like?'" says Cathy McCulloch, chair of the school board at her son's primary, St Mary's in Leith, Edinburgh.

Her views are representative of many within the school boards community in Scotland, as the Executive consults on sweeping changes to the system for involving parents in education - which effectively mean the abolition of boards.

The new draft bill means schools will be able to decide for themselves how to set up their own body, how many people will be on it and what it will do and be called.

The draft legislation is too vague, according to McCulloch, who is also co-director of the children's parliament.

“A successful school board can create a group of parents who are actively involved and feel positive about the school and who communicate with other parents about it in a positive way.”

The Scottish School Board Association (SSBA) is alarmed enough about the legislation to have mounted an internal shake-up, with president Alan Smith being ousted in favour of Caroline Vass, who was seen as being more outspoken.

Education minister Peter Peacock claimed last week that the SSBA had misunderstood the Executive’s plans, and stressed that the new parent forums he is proposing could be set up on exactly the same lines as a school board, if that is what parents desire. But many of those currently involved still feel threatened.

Vass says existing school boards are doing a good job. “School boards are more than a talking shop. They are in partnership managing the school. There are lots of successful school boards doing this.”

But there aren’t enough, according to the Executive, which argues that only 1-per cent of parents are actively involved in school boards at any one time, and even that tiny minority is unrepresentative, as boards tend not to be successful in involving certain groups, such as ethnic minorities or parents from a more deprived background.

Research carried out to inform the consultation suggested that the formal processes surrounding boards, including elections and minuted meetings, were too formal and intimidating for many parents.

Many felt boards were not necessarily there to seek or represent their own views.

Nevertheless, the consultation has already resulted in howls of protest in some quarters, and not just from boards themselves. The Headteachers’Association Scotland (HAS) fears that local authorities have seized on the reform to get rid of the nuisance of school boards,
according to HAS general secretary Bill McGregor.

He says he is unimpressed with the proposals which risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.

“The irony is that when school boards were set up by Michael Forsyth under Margaret Thatcher, we rejected them, ” McGregor says. “They were part of an unpopular policy of schools opting out of local authority control.

“But since then they have evolved and, in the main, headteachers have found them supportive and value them and they have tended to support the schools in battles with the local education authorities.”

He adds: “It may be that there are some people in local authorities who see this bill as an opportunity to get rid of what they view as a nuisance.”

As a headteacher, McGregor says he chose to involve his own school board in decision making, helping select all department heads, but conceded that boards are not always representative. “They have trouble recruiting parents from disadvantaged areas and from ethnic communities.

But I’m not sure that situation will be improved by this proposed bill.” He says school boards should have to consult and communicate more with other parents but instead of abolishing them the Executive should build on them.

Meanwhile he rejects the notion of more powerful boards of governors, similar to those which control the budgets and manage state schools south of the border.

“If there is one thing we have learned in Scotland it is that parents don’t want to run the schools. They want to help, ” he adds.

Councillor Ewan Aitken, education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) , says it is nonsense to suggest that councils want to see the back of school boards. “Authorities wouldn’t survive if they wanted to limit parents’ involvement, ” he says. “We can’t say our schools are really good and we’d like you to come to them, but we don’t want you to have any opinion about them. That is not going to work in the 21st century consumer society.”

However, Cosla too is lukewarm about what is being proposed. “We do want to make sure that parents are involved in the way they want to be involved. But if parents are not wanting to get involved because they don’t like structures, asking them to design a new structure isn’t going to pull them in. As a consequence, school boards in some places may
continue to be limited.” Aitken argues the Executive might have been better off consulting on up to half a dozen suggested models and asking parents which would be most desirable. “A blank sheet can be just as threatening as it is enabling.” Professor Walter Humes of Aberdeen University’s education department argues that the proposed parent forums are part of a political agenda that is about giving more responsibility to consumers without handing over any real control of services.

“There is a rhetoric about giving people ownership and empowering them. When I hear these terms now I reach for the sick bag. I think in all public policy they are talking about giving people responsibility but decision-making power is kept firmly at the centre. This is a good example of it.”

The proposals will only result in an illusion of authority for parents, he adds, warning that while there is not much evidence in Scotland that parents are hungry for a greater say in the running of schools, that is not necessarily a good thing. “There are two possible explanations for that, one because there is a level of satisfaction with the school system
or two, because there is a culture of dependency.

My own view is that people in Scotland tend to be too deferential to professionals in authority.”

He says he is concerned that the draft bill could weaken school boards’ limited authority and create uneven provision across Scotland.

Not all responses to the consultation are likely to be critical. Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council argues parents do not want decision-making power. The reforms are about increasing flexibility and are sensible and timely, she says. “There is no appetite here for parents to run schools and there never has been.

This is not a huge revolution, it is simply replacing something that is very centralised with something that is much more f lexible.”

She rejects suggestions that school boards merely need minor reform. “You can’t keep on amending a piece of legislation, this is starting with a clean slate.”The new parents fora could operate like “a focus group” or a “consultation committee” for the headteacher, she said.

SSBA president Vass believes this threatens to fatally weaken them. She says school boards asked for “a tweak” in the legislation but the draft bill went way beyond. “It weakens the original legislation.

For instance at the moment the head must attend the meetings and advise the school board. That is removed in the draft bill.”

However the SSBA does recognise that there are problems in the existing set up.

One former school board chair, Mary Jane Bennett, says the current set-up is frustrating. “Calling it a board makes it sound as if it has some actual authority but it doesn’t. The local authority calls the shots.”

As an example, her school board objected to the local authority training primary teachers for 28 days so that they could deliver classes in modern languages. “We were very concerned about that but all we could do was make a feeble protest. We were not consulted at all until it was a fait accomplit.”

So what would encourage more parents to get involved with schools? Celia Burn is the new parental involvement coordinator for Learning and Teaching Scotland. She says parent forums could work as they will be more open. Rather than an election process, with candidate statements and other formalities, forums could have a more relaxed process of discussing how to form their committee. Responsibilities of a school board such as looking
at budgets and appointing senior management may be daunting to many parents and the parent forum is about creating more of a dialogue between parents and teachers.

Burn says: “Sending letters home may not be a very effective method of communication. But experience shows there are ways to involve parents in a school – anything to do with food is usually very successful, having food-tasting evenings or having artists, singers or dancers, particularly drawing on the skills of certain communities and getting them to provide some of the entertainment.

“Other strategies are having smaller meetings perhaps for parents from one year group, focusing on the concerns of that group, making the most of opportunities at the end of the day, and using social occasions as an opportunity to tell other parents what the school board has been doing and what’s been happening.”

Gordon Smith, president of the Association of Headteachers Scotland, runs Jordanhill Primary – the only school in Scotland managed by a board with a majority of parent members. “We have parents involved at every level, from making noodles for the Chinese new year, to helping with science classes, to running the school, ” he says.

Smith believes the Executive has to get it right on parental involvement. “Things are changing. The days when parents dropped off their children at the school gate and teachers got on with it are over.”

School boards: a brief history Set up by the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988, they are elected groups of parents with limited powers to be involved in school management.

Set up under Michael Forsyth, they were meant to start schools moving towards opting out of local authority control.

Their powers were limited by the 2000 Standards in Schools (Scotland) Act which also removed schools’ powers to opt out.

The legislation was also amended in 1996 by the Education (Scotland) Act which made it easier for schools to avoid having elections for board members.

Eighty eight per cent of Scotland’s schools have school boards.

A draft bill from education minister Peter Peacock suggests changing school boards into more loosely-structured parent forums.

The Parental Involvement Draft Bill is under consultation until June 7 Anyone who wants to respond to the consultation can do so at: www. parent zonescotlandgov. uk/questionnaire. asp

The Scottish Herald
26th April 2005