Gauntlet is thrown down to parents

Consultation over the White Paper on education aims to let the Government know what the majority stakeholders think.
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Once the summer holidays are over and the new term begins, parents across the country will be invited into their children's schools to watch a video. Those fearing a screening of the head's camcording of two weeks in the Dordogne or edited highlights of the staff Christmas panto need not be alarmed. The video, nicely packaged in parent-friendly pink and green, aims to stimulate discussion over the new education White Paper, published last week.

Soft-focus footage of David Blunkett surrounded by attentive youngsters is one means being used by the Government to reach out to - to coin a New Labour phrase - the majority stakeholders in education: parents. Just as Tony Blair is setting up people's forums to consult on policy, so Mr Blunkett wants to keep an ear to the playground. Parents will be able to feed their comments through schools, or respond directly via forms on the back of White Paper summaries available in supermarkets.

Those parents who do take a look at the document will find plenty that addresses them directly. By 2002, the Government promises, there will be better information about the performance of schools and individual pupils, firm guidelines on homework so parents know what they can expect, and greater representation of parents on school governing bodies and local authorities. In return, Labour's new model parents will be expected to sign school contracts acknowledging their responsibilities as well as rights, signalling a new obligation to take a real interest in their child's education.

The deal seems a fair one in glorious video technicolour, but will parents be able to live up to it? Their part of the bargain is crucial - without their support, the Government says, the nation will struggle to hit its ambitious numeracy and literacy targets.

Such major players, surely, need advice and support if they are to lobby effectively at school and local level, not to mention a mouthpiece to shout on their behalf if ministers stop listening.

In the light of the new emphasis on parent-power, it is ironic that Britain's largest parents' organisation has chosen this month to blunder deeper into the turmoil bedevilling it throughout the Nineties. A damning Charity Commission inquiry report identifying a catalogue of failings from excessive spending on luxury hotels to mismanagement and inadequate financial controls at the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations was this week dismissed by the charity as innaccurate and "reliant upon subjective statements".

The NCPTA is resisting the Commission's calls for the removal of its three serving officers, and a complex dispute over whether they profited from trusteeships is now in the hands of lawyers and could go to the High Court. In a final astonishing twist, the charity's press officer Margaret Morrisey this week wrote pleading her case to the Queen, higher education minister Baroness Blackstone and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

While the NCPTA, with 11,000 member schools, preoccupies itself with internal struggles, however, other organisations are seizing the chance to gain a bigger say for parents. Margaret McGowan, of the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE), suggests parents have so far being treated as very passive in dealings with government. "They have had the right to all this information through league tables, but no one has really said what they can do with it. If they are not kept involved, they are tempted to just let schools get on with it."

To make the most of ministers' offer of more involvement, parents need advice at local level, ACE says. The charity plans to back up its national helpline with on-the-ground support provided by distributing education information manuals, now being piloted, to organisations such as Citizens Advice Bureaux or benefits and housing advice offices.

The Campaign for State Education, CASE, also welcomes the change in attitude to parents, but would like to see reform taken further. More representation on education committees and governing bodies is all very well, CASE says, but a constituency as large as parents deserves a representative structure all of its own.

The organisation proposes a pyramid system of parents' councils, starting with school-based bodies whose members would include representatives from each class or teaching group, up through governing bodies and local parent- governor associations to a national parents' council, which would contribute to a national education forum. The councils, based on examples on the Continent, would be publicly funded and, unlike PTAs, would concentrate wholly on policy rather than fundraising or social events.

Such a pyramid, says CASE executive secretary Margaret Tulloch, would ensure each tier was genuinely representing the one below, giving the national council, at the summit, indisputable power as a voice the Government could not ignore. The potential political power of a national council, however, is probably exactly the reason no government is likely to clear the way for one. Parent-power is all very well, providing it's with you, not against.

The vast majority of parents, all representative organisations acknowledge, do not seek to get involved in national politics anyway. Pat Ball, administrator for the Alliance of Parents and Schools (APS) - a breakaway group from the NCPTA with 2,075 member schools - says: "Most parents will only be concerned about issues that affect their children. The most common are special educational needs, school transport and funding."

The role of the Alliance, as well as providing a rival PTA insurance deal to the National Confederation, is to act as a link between parents seeking support and other organisations such as CASE or ACE with the expertise to help. It is a less formal structure than a parents' council, but, says Mrs Ball, still ensures that real grassroots concerns reach the ears of ministers.

The challenge in representing the sprawling constituency of the nation's parents is summed up by Dr Noel Olsen, vice-president of Devon PTAs. "There is no such thing as a `typical parent'," he argues."What we have is a remarkable consensus over certain factors - good teaching, a safe environment and the exemplar role of teachers - and the test is to find a way of helping parents monitor and contribute to that."

As the summer holidays begin, the Government has thrown the gauntlet to parents to consider the role they can play in shaping future education locally and nationally.The queues, or otherwise, to view the White Paper video will provide the first test of their willingness to take up the challenge