My first Education Committee as a Green councillor this week (or Education, Children and Families to give it its proper name). Like most of the early meetings of committees the agenda is largely filled with programmes and reports which were developed under the previous Administration and so there is a sense of waiting for bigger things ahead.
But there’s one clear observation even at this early stage: for a service that is so critical to parents, children and young people their voice is not obviously present. To be fair, right at the start of this first meeting, there was a delegation of parents from St Catherines’s PS who elegantly argued against the restriction of their P1 intake to one class (64 children wanting to go to P1; only one class of 25 forming) but even that was kind of off-limits as there are a number of appeals pending.
Sitting round the table were two religious representatives (required by law, it seems) and two representatives of the teaching profession. But no equivalent voice from the people who actually use the service: young people and parents. The coalition agreement does undertake to explore the possibility of a parent representative on the Committee (although, personally, I see that as one step among many needed) but the department’s service plan – which is supposed to reflect all the coaliton commitments – has omitted that one. Meanwhile, a draft response from the City Council to the current Commission on School Reforms has taken account of the views of headteachers, but there has been no opportunity for parents and young people to contribute. This is especially ironic given that one of the suggestions made is better parent engagement!
And this is not just a matter of principle. The response to the Commission is very cautious, far short of the ambition that parents, I believe, would show, if asked, as we were, to cast ahead 50 years. Elsewhere on the agenda was a report on implementing new support arrangements for secondary schools. The new system, being introduced from August, was delayed for a year as a result of effective lobbying by, among other, secondary school parents. In the intervening year, a working group has come up with a much more consensual and structured set of proposals. They are probably not perfect but they certainly show the merits of proper dialogue. In other words listening to parent pressure has produced better policy.
So I see one of my jobs being to ensure that a parent and young people voice is heard loud and clear. I’ll do that as an individual parent, myself but also in how I seek views from parents and young people. But a more fundamental rethink of how we make the service more open is really what is needed.