The Blog

It Is Time to Stand Up for Parents

Having school parents on boards was an innovation introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980. She took school milk away. But she supported school parents as governors. I think she would still support them today.

The Education White Paper launched on Friday has its strong points, but being pro-parent is not one of them. Alongside the headline policy objective of moving all schools to become academies, whether parents approve or not, it announces the government's intention to remove the obligation to include parents on the boards of schools, writes Ed Mayo, Secretary General, Co operatives UK.

The best boards, whether in business or in public services, have an outstanding mix of skills and expertise. If you get the governance right, you are improving not just performance, but also the sustainability of the organisation over time. But that doesn't mean that accounting, finance and HR are the only skills that a board can benefit from. From my work across the co-operative sector, including over 800 co-operative schools, I know that being a parent can be a form of expertise, to be used alongside the other skills that board governors can draw on as a team.

Public services have rarely celebrated the role of the user. Years ago, Anthony Crosland declared himself staggered after local visits by the extent to which statutory services depend on the volunteer. Today, this includes, in England:

  • 170,000 volunteers who work in the NHS, befriending and counselling patients, driving people to hospital, fund raising, running shops and cafes...
  • 12 million meals a year that are prepared by volunteers to people in care
  • 1.85 million people who are regular blood donors, with 8.2 million signed up as potential organ donors
  • 750,000 people who volunteer in schools
  • Around 145,000 tenants and residents who are involved in user groups in social housing
  • Over two million people who are members of NHS Foundation Trusts

In the health service, patient involvement began in 1974 with the establishment of community health councils. In education, during the 1970s most schools began to encourage parent governors. By 1979, 90 per cent of schools had parents on the board, and it was due to parental pressure that in 1980 that they gained the statutory right to be represented.

Having a parental view at the board can bring the school closer to parents, who are after all the key partners in their children's learning. The new White Paper does recognise this, and calls for improved engagement by schools with parents, but it misses the way in which having parents involved in school decision-making and not just at the school gates, makes this easier to do. With the move to multi-academy chains, there is a risk that the only accountability that parents will be able to call on is an uncertain and faceless performance and inspection regime.

One school in West Sussex sent out attendance letters to parents. When some parent read letters that said that, their children had only an 85 per cent attendance record, they thought there was something to celebrate. After all, what did the percentage mean? They compared it to exam results, in which case 85 per cent was excellent. At a suggestion from a parent governor, the head teacher changed the letters, to colour code them, as red, amber and green. In talking to parents, she explained that 85 per cent was almost one whole year of education in five missed. The conversations with parents changed overnight, to how they could move their children from red to amber, or amber to green.

The co-operative schools sector is, in the main, an exemplar for this kind of partnership approach. Today over 250,000 young people attend co operative schools in England, primarily as trust schools but a few as co-operative academies, such as my local school, Corelli Academy.

What is a co-operative school? There are two key features. The first is that the co-operative values of democracy, equity and fairness are applied as an ethos across the school. The second is a governance model that directly engages key stakeholders through membership of the trust, where it is a trust school. This model provides a formal way to include not just parents and carers, but also staff, the local community and the pupils themselves. Together they form a community-based mutual organisation.

The growth of co-operative schools reflects a growing attitude that people expect public services, not least in the context of financial pressures and changes to service delivery, to work with them, rather than just for them - a real partnership.

When you ask people, what marks out the best public services - what is the public service 'X Factor' that differentiates them - then people speak about empathy, compassion, warmth, the human touch, respect and focusing help on people who need it most: "If I go into a school, I want to feel as if I have been listened to."

But there are urban myths that have always gone hand in hand with parents as school governors, some of them kept alive by the part of the educational establishment that sees parents as a problem in schools rather than a partner.

Myth one: Parents will demand everything. But there is good research that that this is simply not true. If anything, some may not demand enough, both because of respect for the profession of teaching but also because of a professionalized discourse that at times takes the focus away from children and their learning.

Myth two: Parents are not interested. Wrong. They are not apathetic. They care about their children and their peers, but they may not care for the way for the questions and language that professionals tend to use. Research across public services suggest that seven out of ten people express a view at some stage, but don't then feel they are listened to or engaged by the process.

Myth three: Parents will look out for their own private interest, not the public interest. Again, wrong. They will speak for each other, not just for themselves. And when they speak from experience, that experience is often shared.

It seems to me that this government is in a complete muddle when it comes to consumer affairs. It wants to believe that competition and business will give consumers a voice - so much so, that it will remove the voice of parents at board level in education to help pave the way to a more commercial market. Where that has patently failed, such as in energy, it falls back on regulation and market investigations. Where that in turn has patently failed, such as in football, it has encouraged a move to direct representation of fans on boards. Sports Minister David Evennett said recently that "the FA is embarking on a review of its governance, and we hope genuine progress will be made, including on giving supporters greater representation on its decision-making boards."

Whatever the future for education policy, surely parents need to be more involved in education not less. In other countries, such as Sweden, Spain and Canada, pre-school education and childcare is delivered by successful parent and employee-led co-ops. In the UK, regulations get in the way of having parent-led children centres. Rather than step back at board level and hope to push forward elsewhere, it should be time to widen parental involvement at all levels.

Having school parents on boards was an innovation introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980. She took school milk away. But she supported school parents as governors. I think she would still support them today.

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