Parent power: not perfect, but here to stay

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The Independent Online

The relationship between schools and parents has never been an easy one, however nostalgic teachers may be for a time when parents made dutiful appearances at parents' evenings and sports' days, but otherwise stayed away. Even so, when Ruth Kelly came to office pledging to reinforce the role of parents in schools, she can hardly have appreciated the size of the hornets' nest she was stirring up.

The relationship between schools and parents has never been an easy one, however nostalgic teachers may be for a time when parents made dutiful appearances at parents' evenings and sports' days, but otherwise stayed away. Even so, when Ruth Kelly came to office pledging to reinforce the role of parents in schools, she can hardly have appreciated the size of the hornets' nest she was stirring up.

Yesterday, David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, used his valedictory speech to warn of a backlash if "parent power" went too far. There was a danger, he said, that increasing the role of parents would send the wrong message - "one that has parent power, not parental responsibility, written all over it".

Now, Mr Hart's florid language may have had something to with feelings of demob happiness and a desire to please his audience one last time. He was also making a political point. The raised expectations of parents, he insisted, could not be met unless schools were given more money.

The fact, however, is that relations between schools, parents and ministers are at their worst for many a year - and one reason is the sense among teachers that they are caught between the impossible requirements of ministers and the unrealistic demands of parents. Their complaints that children are less well prepared for school than they used to be, and that parents are too ready to defend misbehaviour, are also not without foundation.

In complaining about parental power without responsibility, however, Mr Hart came close to suggesting that parents should take what they are given so far as their children's schooling is concerned. In one revealing remark, he said that while parents should be consulted on healthy school meals, they should not believe they can "control" this, or any other, aspect of school management. He also suggested parents were too influential on school governing bodies.

Such views are arrogant; they are also behind the times. Many parents have long been involved in their children's schools, but that involvement mostly went only one way. Schools expected parents to help raise funds and contribute their time, but not to have any further say. Published league tables, however crude a mechanism, started to make schools accountable to parents for their performance.

The relationship between schools and parents is still evolving. There needs to be more public discussion of where the role of parents stops and schools' responsibility begins, and perhaps some codification to define the obligations on either side. The one certainty is that there will be no return to the days when parents' only role at school was to be seen occasionally and never heard.

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