Calling all parents power

In the run-up to the general election, the role of parents is under the spotlight. Should their influence be confined to their own children's education, or should they have a national voice? Maureen O'Connor reports
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Should active parents become a pressure group promoting particular policies to government, as the teachers' organisations do? Or should they confine themselves to supporting their own schools, and seeking the best way they can to enhance their own children's education? Or both?

The latest row within the National Confederation of Parent Teachers' Associations (NCPTA) raises the question in acute form. The NCPTA is the largest and by far the richest body claiming to represent parents in England. It is also the most acrimonious, and the Charity Commissioners are currently considering complaints about the way it is being run.

Weeks before an election campaign in which education will be one of the main issues, the Confederation finds its trustees in turmoil, with two of them having been sacked and an emergency annual general meeting about to be called. The current chairman, Ian Price, says that he will welcome an investigation, because the organisation has nothing to hide.

But the sacked trustees, Sean Rogers, who should have taken over as chairman in May for a three-year term, and Sandi Marshall, who is from Devon, are both deeply unhappy about the way that they have been treated. Sean Rogers is considering legal action over the way that he has been treated. They claim that they were elected by the membership on a reformist platform to put an end to years of in-fighting in the organisation and to put it on a more professional footing. They were removed by their fellow trustees for "bringing the organisation into disrepute" after a dispute with staff at the Gravesend headquarters.

They say that they want to see more help for parents in schools at the grass roots, making better use of the NCPTA's pounds 750,000 a year income and the pounds 1.2m it has in the bank. They also want a more coherent national voice for parents. The organisation has been more timid than they believe it needs to be under charity law in campaigning against policies that are damaging children's education.

Sean Rogers and Sandi Marshall were among the trustees who insisted on appointing a chief executive last year in order to develop the organisation and make it more responsive to the needs of schools. The chief executive appointed left the NCPTA after only three months, and has not been replaced.

Discontent is growing among local federations of PTAs which feel that they get little back for their annual subscriptions. Brian Hardman, secretary of the Stockport Federation, says that he refuses to spend his members' money on expensive meetings when schools are so strapped for cash.

"I am getting calls all the time for help and advice which I don't have the resources to meet," he says. "I even found it impossible to get a fax through the central organisation."

The remaining trustees refute allegations that Sean Rogers and Sandi Marshall have been treated unfairly. Ian Price says that the procedures followed have been entirely constitutional, and that the Charity Commissioners will find that the organisation's financial policy is prudent. He supports proposals for a regional organisation which will be more accountable to members.

But affiliations to the NCPTA have recently been falling and in 1995 one group of activists became so disillusioned that they set up a rival organisation, the Alliance of Parents and Schools, which has 1,600 school members.

The Alliance is keen to campaign on issues such as class size and funding, but is encouraging its members to work with other groups such as the Campaign for State Education (Case).

Pat Ball, APS secretary, who used to be active in the NCPTA, says that the refusal to campaign effectively for schools was the major reason for the breakaway. "We were tired of parents being used as a political football. Politicians should listen to what parents are really saying."

Frustration with the "existing channels" for making parents' voices heard also played a part in establishing the campaigning group Fight against Cuts in Education (Face) three years ago, when anger about local authority budget cuts was at its height. Furious teachers and parents, initially in the hardest-hit shire counties but later in the cities as well, are still mounting protests against this year's cuts.

But the political pay-back has been minimal. The Government has continued its policy of "capping" local authority spending. And Face's activities have been the target of accusations of "far-left" influence from some of those they might have seen as natural allies, such as the National Union of Teachers.

This has infuriated Face's middle-England supporters in the shires. One way or another, attacks on Face, and the reluctance of the NCPTA to campaign, mean that the voice of parents has become muted at a time of fierce national controversy over education. For its part, Case does campaign and wants to see parents more thoroughly integrated into the education system through a representative system, as they often are abroad.

The organisation has proposed educational forums for parent governors to discuss issues locally and to elect a national forum which could address government on more equal terms.

This sort of structure already exists in a number of European countries, where the idea of a genuine educational partnership between home, school and government is widely accepted. In Denmark, educational legislation is agreed only by consensus in parliament. Discussions must include the national Parents' Association and the teachers' union.

In France, decentralisation of control over schools has seen parents and older students represented on school boards, and on regional and national consultative committees where policy is made. Germany operates a similar system.

And you have to look only as far as Scotland to see how more vigorous organisations for parents can establish themselves as an influential part of the political process. Scottish parents were significantly more successful than those in England in obtaining modifications to the testing and other reform proposals of the late Eighties. Scottish parents see this as a victory for common sense, and a more coherent voice for parents north of the border.