Is there room for parents in the ‘Big Society’?

I’ve been trying to understand what David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is all about and, finally, I thought I’d grasped it. It’s about people taking charge of their own lives, having a bigger say in how their local services are run and – where they wish to – running things themselves. At least, I thought it was, until I looked at the Lib-Con proposals for Academy schools.

You could say (and I have) that the driving force behind the ‘Big Society’ is an ideological one – the Tories and the right of the Liberal Democrat party don’t like the state and want to pay less taxes – rather than a genuine belief in harnessing people power to improve public services. My concern, set out in a previous blog, is that the ‘Big Society’ is more of a mirage than any kind of miracle cure.

But, for now, let’s take the ‘Big Society’ at face value as something radical designed to put people (not politicians) at the heart of things. In this case, let’s say ‘the heart of things’ is the local primary school.

The Lib-Con coalition agreement is big on ‘parent power’ – they get a mention four times in the short section on schools. It suggests throughout that parents are right at the heart of educational reform.

So, you would assume, in a ‘Big Society’,that parents will have a say in how their school is run; that they would – at least – be asked their opinion before their child’s school underwent anything approaching a radical upheaval. Wouldn’t you?

Not according to the new Academies Bill.

Fiona Millar has been a long-standing critic of the Academy programme (and a very active supporter of the state school system) and she has highlighted some worrisome provisions in the Lib-Con Academies Bill, particularly the complete lack of engagement with parents.

I had a good look at the ‘Explanatory Notes’ which accompany the Academies Bill to see if Millar’s claim were right. Probe not too deeply and you find the mechanism for a school becoming an Academy. Here it is in all it’s simplicity: the Head and the Governing Body of an ‘Outstanding’ school write to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State writes back to say ‘go ahead’.

That’s it – an exchange of letters.

No need to consult with parents, let alone secure their agreement. Technically, a school wouldn’t even need to inform parents before applying for Academy statues. This seems at odds with the ‘Big Society’ – I thought we, the people, were in charge?

Yes, governing bodies have parent representatives, but such a significant change shouldn’t be agreed behind closed doors. Why should other non-governor parents be excluded from this process? Are their views unimportant? What if they object – what mechanisms do they have to challenge the Academy application? I expect they have two choices – move their child to another school (with all the disruption that involves) or, ahem, set up their own free school.

The other major fault-line in this is the removal of local councils from the process. As with parents, there is no requirement for a school to consult with (or even inform) their local authority. When a school becomes an Academy local authorities are ‘instructed’ by the Secretary of State to immediately cease maintenance and ‘control’ of the school. You can read all this for yourself – see the Explanatory Notes for the Bill here.

Whatever your view of local councils, they are local entities, run by elected local councillors, who often live in the locality (forgive the repetition – I’m just trying to establish a point), so it seems counter to the idea of a ‘Big Society’ to establish a stronger relationship between the centre (Whitehall) and the school, rather than ‘the local’ and the school.

This looks like a deliberate move, to help the Conservatives by-pass Labour-run councils. In other words, it’s about politics, not about local democracy and decision-making. It will be interesting to see how Liberal Democrat councils respond to this side-swipe (it’s also important to note the pejorative use of the word ‘control’ when describe the relationship between local authorities and schools; it contains no hint of the job good local authorities do to support and improve schools).

If the Academies Bill is anything to go by the ‘Big Society’ has got very little to do with people (or parent) power. Looks like I’m back where I started; still confused about the ‘Big Society’!

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11 Comments

Filed under Conservatives, Lib Dems, Policy, Politics - general, Schools

11 responses to “Is there room for parents in the ‘Big Society’?

  1. An interesting view of the bill. A couple of points though.

    Don’t the Governing Bodies of all Community (i.e. council run) Schools have one third of their membership elected by the parent body? As well as up to a third from the staff? And a similar number appointed by the (Labour-run?) local authority?

    And whilst I agree that our local authorities are elected, no one has yet convinced me that the essence of democratic elections is encapsulated in the FPTP system used to elect English local councils. School Governing Bodies are transparently composed from a variety of stakeholder groups and «do» represent their constituent parts.

    In my opinion, anyone suggesting that parents should be asked before a GB takes such a decision would I’m sure agree that it would be responsible for a GB to ask parents before REJECTING the invitation from Michael Gove. Wouldn’t that be fair? I note that the SoS has not suggested imposing such a requirement on every GB in the country.

    There is nothing to stop any GB from deciding off their own back to go and consult their parent body before taking such a big step. But there is no requirement to do so. The new government has made clear from the outset that it is moving away rapidly to the old Zentral Kommittee type control and diktat that so characterised the last government’s education policies. It is allowing schools much more room for manouevre and to decide themselves how best to progress.

    And it’s a bit rich suggesting Fiona as a beacon of successful local authority control, given that she is Chair of Governors at a voluntary-aided school, where a majority of governors are appointed by a charitable trust. Sauce for the goose ….

    • SchoolDuggery

      While one can hope that Governing Bodies will consult on whether to become Academies, there is no assurance that they will. While many do represent their stakeholders’ views well, it will be a difficult task to stand against the will of the HT without evidence from a thorough consultation.

      And a vote to convert to Academy status requires only a simple majority to take effect. The number of schools registering an interest who have quite clearly not had time to even discuss it with governors makes me uneasy.

      Consulting parents on a decision NOT to proceed to Academy status sounds reasonable. However, it is not an equivalent situation. A decision to become an Academy is pretty much irrevocable. A decision not to proceed now is not. There is plenty of time for parents to express a view if a decision is not about to be made imminently.

      And I am also concerned that there will be no requirement for Academy GBs to include parent members at all. Some current Academies have a sole parent representative.

  2. Thanks for your comments – lots to think about.

    I take your point about the membership of Governing bodies, but my view is that such a change should involve the wider body of parents.

    You could of course turn all this on its head and imagine a school with a Head, teacher representative, council representative (etc) were opposed to their school becoming an Academy – whereas the view of the wider body of parents was in favour. Under the current proposal they would have no mechanism for triggering a change. They should be able to, shouldn’t they?

    I think we can also introduce a process which falls well short of the overly centralist stuff you mention, but does formally involve parents . This needn’t be onerous or excessively bureaucratic.

    On local authorities, there may be (OK – is) a case for democratic reform but again it seems odd to bypass local authorities completely. My broader point is about ‘Big Society’ – surely this must encompass a more ambitious vision and role for local democracy, not it’s complete removal. This proposal is very different to the Lib-Con proposals for police – which suggests more local and elected governance, not less. This doesn’t quite add up in a big picture sense.

    Finally, on Fiona Millar – I didn’t say she was a beacon of anything, just that she has been critical of Academies and has argued in favour of state education. It was her article that triggered my thoughts.

    Thanks again for your comments – interesting stuff, I think.

  3. I would agree that a school would be crazy not to involve parents in such a decision. My argument is that I don’t believe that MG should define that process. Let the individual schools decide how they are going to do it.

    And if a school does go ahead and ignores its parents opinions, then what is there to stop the parents withdrawing their kids and starting their own school?

    I think that the hands-off approach will yield much better rewards in the long run.

  4. It would be a really odd situation if the only option for a parent who disagreed with a Governing body was to set up their own school.

    A more realistic prospect would be to involve parents properly in the process, rather than saying “if you don’t like it – do it yourself”

  5. In return the site is very organized, focused and easy to navigate helping you find the exact product you want.
    Sure I already commented on this but what ever parents were involved probably more than they ever had been before when OFSTED was introduced. It was Fiona Millar and gang who cut parents out and made Governors the rulers, not a good move. I have been a Governor since 1975 and a Governor trainer but under new legislation I have no time for the place that has been foisted on them. To me it is insulting to a head teacher to be ruled by a none academic untrained body no other profession would tolerate it. Neither should parents rule it all has to be a partnership but at the end of the day the Head should be the person to make the final decision. Any good Head will carry the parents with them and together the school will go forward, parents have to remember they are but transitory the decision has to be for longer than the span their child is in the school. I have spent all my working life supporting parents and fighting for their voice to be listened to by politicians and teachers but it has to be done with respect and restraint

    • Someone please tell me this is a windup! A governor trainer who thinks that the GB’s role is to rule the headteacher? And who thinks that GB’s are untrained? and who presumably believes that a PGCE is a prerequisite to understanding school finances, school buildings, school technology and school personnel. and who forgets that parents tend to live in the communities in which their children attend school. And often have a lifelong commitment to those communities, far longer than most employees at the school.

  6. It’s noticeable that the Big Society idea was dropped rapidly from the pre-election campaign when the Conservatives realised it actually ended up frightening some voters, such was the confusion about what it actually meant.

    I doubt we will be seeing a return to the Big Society anytime soon…

  7. Interesting but perhaps off topic? Surely the focus should be upon helping improve outcomes for students and not on whether your disdain for an idea like big society.

    You also tacitly dismiss parental representation on governing bodies, yet fail to say that this body of unpaid, undervalued school supporters also included Fiona Millar.

    As for academies, yes this new academies lite process seems weak, but my experience (having worked on it within Whitehall) the process has been riven politically from the start. For example, the DfES turned down an offer by one company to ‘sponsor” 80 academies, which would at the time have notionally cost them £160m (up front). I put sponsor in quotes as this is a commercial concept, with related business benefits for both parties. Yet academy ‘sponsors’ were not supposed to be able to obtain any comemrcial benefits therefore it should perhaps have been called the Academy Philanthropy Programme.

  8. Hi Richard,

    You’ve confused me: what’s ‘off topic’ and why? This post is about the (apparent) gap between the rhetoric and reality of ‘Big Society’, based a look at one piece of legislation – that is the topic.

    On parent Governors, I’m not dismissing them. They do a great job. More power to them. But my point is that a significant change to the set-up of a local school should include the wider body of parents (particularly given the Big Society rhetoric of more people power, not less).

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