Education: Parents should be given a real voice

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Politicians and professionals seem able to justify almost any opinion about education by asserting that they know what parents want. One claims that parents want grammar schools back; another shows how parents are fighting to protect comprehensives. One demonstrates that parents are anxious to know whether their children and the school are making proper progress; another points to parental distrust of government tests. Politicians tell us that parents want the power to challenge and change their local school's policy; professionals say parents would prefer to let them get on with the job.

Who knows what parents want? Surveys confirm that parents want smaller classes, higher standards, better resources, smarter buildings, and a freehold on the Sea of Tranquillity.

So long as nobody can make a really legitimate claim to speak on behalf of the nation's parents, it is easy for anyone to lend spurious authority to their own opinion by alleging that it is a parental demand. Above all, the Government is able to legitimise its policy in this way. Ministers refer to open enrolment as 'parent power'; many parents, however, feel quite powerless in their choice of school. Ministers published a Parents' Charter; but how many parents influenced its content?

Several respectable and worthy national organisations have limited authority to promote the interests of parents, and deserve a role: the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, for instance, and the Campaign for State Education. But they all, in some way, represent alliances between active parents and teachers. Their national committees and officers comprise a significant proportion of teachers and former teachers. In practice, therefore, they have an in-built inclination to avoid criticising the profession.

Similarly, the National Association of Governors and Managers does excellent work supporting parent governors - but teacher and local authority governors also belong, so the association cannot represent parental opinion alone. The only national organisation that responds entirely to parental demand - the Advisory Centre for Education - must remain politically detached in order to serve its purpose of guiding individual parents through the educational maze without prejudice.

Parents have their own particular interests distinct from those of teachers; but they have no accepted forum for their expression. Too many teachers still dismiss this question too easily. Too many believe that parents are either misguided, ill-informed, or too consumed with concern for their own child's circumstances to see the wider context. But there is a very large group of parents - at least 40,000 of them - who are very well informed about what goes in on schools: parent governors. Moreover, they reflect the broad body of committed parental opinion. They are directly elected by other parents: no professional has any part in deciding who shall be among their number.

If the Government is serious about responding to parents, it should establish a national parent-governor organisation. In a book called Opting Out: Choice and the Future of Schools, Martin Rogers, director of the local-authority- sponsored group Local Schools Information, suggested that such a body should have a statutory foundation; I agree. He proposed that local education authorities establish the structure in their areas, with the Government supporting national and regional tiers; about that, I have some doubts.

All parent governors should automatically be members of a national organisation. They could meet in districts, and elect members to a national council, which would run the organisation.

Many local authorities, to their credit, have recognised the value of soliciting and supporting parent-governors' views: they have, in some cases, even brought them into their decision-making. If local authorities are willing to support local groups, fine; such support should not, however, be a necessary feature of the organisation.

The organisation should be entrusted with offering impartial information and advice to parent governors. Instead of national officers assuming that they know what parent governors think, the organisation would be required to solicit its members' views directly; in other words, it would be required to act as a conduit for the broad spread of parent-governor opinion.

Modern technology enables quick mailing and response analysis. A parent- governor organisation could have given a true reflection of parental views on, say, the Government's White Paper earlier this year. In Germany, the federal Lander are required by law to consult parents, through the statutory parent groups, on the content of each region's obligatory curriculum. Our curriculum authorities should be required to consult the parent-governors' organisation on the content of our national curriculum.

This step would go a long way toward giving parents a real voice. It might even be the first step towards a fully-fledged national parents' union, which any parent could join. At that stage, parents might start beginning to believe the rhetoric of power.

'Opting Out: Choice and the Future of Schools' by Martin Rogers is published by Lawrence & Wishart, pounds 8.99 (paperback).