Most would agree that the School Board system was long overdue for review and that the very nature and confinements of its processes and procedures had curtailed and stifled parental involvement rather than encouraging it. With all its legislation and boundaries it had become detrimental to the involvement of parents and some Parent Teacher Associations had taken on the role of School Boards, while others struggled to exist and, in some cases, there was no involvement of this kind at all.

Families have changed in nature in recent decades and the definition in the Parental Involvement Act acknowledges that by being all inclusive. The Act allows all with parental status to be part of the Parent Forum and gives an entitlement to being involved and consulted regarding the education of their child. Forums should facilitate better communication and make it easier for parents to be more directly involved in decisions regarding the education of their child. Parent Councils should be fairly selected and should comprise of a majority of Parents, however, it is essential that the staff in the school are well represented by the Head Teacher and preferably staff members also. Caution must be exercised in the development of these Parent Councils from the outset to ensure that balance is maintained avoiding a non-reflective parental view. Members selected for Parent Councils should reflect the whole Parent Forum and school community. We must ensure that situations where ‘pioneering parents’ assume they can take the lead and govern schools are avoided and that the key message is one of partnership, collaboration and collegiality.

Obviously the situation of parents trying to take over is the extreme and in most cases, one finds it hard to get parents over the threshold, never mind involving them in the writing of School Development plans, Standards & Quality Reports, quality assurance procedures and disciplinary matters. However, it would be naïve to think that there won’t be a small faction of parents waiting for the opportunity to ‘get their own back’ or ‘teach these schools/HTs a thing or two!’ Ideally, if schools and Local Authorities can work together with parents and listen to what they actually want, then Parent Councils should benefit the schools in many ways. Parent Councils will have power – the power of the Parent Voice – and this can work in both directions. There will be a recognised body of parents, with a duty and an obligation to represent the views of the whole Parent Forum and to feedback to the wider community of the school. What a powerful tool to use positively in developing and raising the profile of our schools! I believe that it is not only right but imperative that Headteachers engage fully in the process and exercise our right and duty to attend Parent Council meetings. However, once a climate of mutual trust and partnership is established the Parent Council could and should take forward appropriate developments (in areas such as building positive relationships, raising the profile of the school in the community, fundraising and promoting and running social events within the school) without management or teaching staff being directly involved.

The guidance offered so far to Headteachers is that they should ‘facilitate’ the process and development of Parent Councils. However, I believe that we need to do more than facilitate, we need to drive the process and be fully involved and engaged from the outset in order to ensure that the development does indeed benefit and positively impact on the school. It is of prime importance that the Parent Council is fully reflective of the whole school community, not least the whole Parent Forum. It should also, ultimately, aim to be supportive of the school and members should be willing to work in a spirit of collaboration and partnership.

Through early involvement we can help to shape the development and set the scene for positive relationships. If the Parent Forum detects resistance or a lack of trust, the system is destined for failure straight away. Involve your Local Authority in the facilitation process and use the toolkit provided. It is a clear and concise tool to assist with the formulation of constitutions and answers questions on the wider implications of Parental Involvement, as well as giving some examples of good practice to get schools started. It certainly isn’t rocket science and, in my own setting, I was reassured by the number of areas of good practice we were currently implementing in our school.

It must be remembered that the formation of Parent Councils is only one part of the Parental Involvement Act and there is an expectation and a much needed requirement to engage parents more in the education of their child. Schools are not centres for child care or social care, they are primarily centres for education and this has to be the main message to parents and the wider community. At the core of the Parental Involvement Act is the aim of involving all parents in their child’s education and the work of the school. Whether willing to be a member of the Parent Council or on a working group or assisting with fundraising and social events, all parents are members of the Parent Forum and with that every parent has responsibilities in terms of Parental Involvement. These responsibilities need to be relayed to parents in some form or another.

The benefits to all stakeholders when parents are fully engaged and involved are numerous. Children learn better, achieve more, access a wider range of activities and generally are better motivated to learn and feel adequately supported in school. Parents are better informed, rejoice more in their child’s achievements, build on their own levels of confidence, continue their ongoing education and generally are confident and reassured in the standard of education their child is receiving. The school gains a wide range of expertise, the behaviour and attainment of pupils improves, there is a forum for effective consultation and the information given to schools (in this spirit of trust and partnership) ensures the best can be given to each individual. As a result, the Education Authority is better informed regarding parental views, there is a wide forum for consultation and information sharing and the processes established should in turn represent a wide set of opinions.

SEED have produced a toolkit and a best practice guide which sets out, in a clear and easily understood format, the expectations for all stakeholders regarding supporting children’s learning at home. It is no longer left to chance or to the choice of an individual school or parent, regarding the obligations being carried out by parents to support their child’s learning at home – it is now an Act of Parliament. As such, there is a duty and an obligation on everybody involved in the child’s life to ensure that appropriate support and engagement is undertaken. The toolkit and supporting documentation provide additional guidance and suggestions as to how to facilitate the process and how to further extend and develop home/school partnerships and links with the wider community. All of the examples given are indeed good practice and, in an ideal world, we would all love to be at the helm of schools which operate in such a way (indeed, some of you reading this may be in that fortunate position!) However, if one is being realistic, the pitfalls and the barriers must be recognised and acknowledged, particularly if we are to address them with a view to overcoming them.

It will be no surprise that, in most schools, the parents we desperately want to and need to engage with are the hardest to reach. They don’t attend Parent Contact evenings, social evenings, respond to letters, read correspondence and will only cross the door if there is something they need to complain about.

It is clear from all the research, including other agencies such as Health which resulted in ‘Hall 4’, that those families with social issues and from areas of multiple deprivations are extremely problematic to reach and in some cases it is a miracle that some of these youngsters actually make it into school on a daily basis. However, we can not sit back and ‘atomise’ the situation. Professor Richard Elmore, Harvard University, tells us it is detrimental to all concerned if one absolves oneself from all responsibility and, particularly in education, tries to account for difficulties experienced in the education of their pupils by laying blame at the door of society, family upbringing or behavioural difficulties, thus atomising the situation. However, there is still a real and living dilemma for all involved in the education of these young people and there is a duty and an expectation that we will do all we can to engage with these families and use the multi-agency approach to work with and develop these families.

The key in all of this is a consistency of approach and open and transparent lines of communication between all involved. Education cannot be the only driver in the process and the Headteacher or Depute cannot be left with the role of co-ordinating all of this. Parents should be key players in the process and Parent Councils should have a duty and a role to play in engaging with other parents and getting them on board. The Local Authority also needs to be planning events and supporting schools in the facilitation and development of this and parents need to be made aware of their duties and responsibilities to ensure the partnership works and to take ownership of their children.

I started by asking the question ‘Parental Involvement – a blessing or a curse?’ In response, how we handle, shape and influence this will very much determine our answer. We can choose to hide behind the barricades easily established in education and wait for the onslaught of the Parent Forum to occur, perhaps hoping it won’t ever happen or we can stand on the ramparts and fly the flag for our schools, clearly at the helm, embracing the Parent Forum and working together with parents to get the best for all our stakeholders, particularly, and most importantly, our children. The choice, my friends, is yours!

Pamela Nesbitt

AHDS Education & Schools Committee Convener