Hearing the voice of parents

Edinburgh Council is reviewing the ways in which it engages with parents over education matters.  About time too.

Parental involvement in education is something about which I feel strongly.  For four years prior to becoming a councillor I chaired the Parent Council at my local primary school, Craiglockhart Primary on Ashley Terrace.  During that time I also helped to set up Edinburgh Parent Councils Network, an email network for parent councils to share ideas and learning with each other, which also organised events and ran campaigns on funding.

Over the four years I met some wonderful people – passionate about our schools, informed and brimful of ideas.  Yet, so often the Council appeared to treat them either indifferently, at best, or as actively hostile, at worst.  The existing means of engagement, the Consultative Committee with Parents (CCWP) was turgid and I certainly knew of talented and active parents who simply refused to go.  The Council’s own Parental Involvement Unit is limited by its solely administrative role when the function is crying out for a development and facilitating focus.

So I am convinced, like my colleague Melanie Main, in an earlier blog, that transforming parental involvement in education is a key to improvement (I could say the same of involving children and young people but this blog post is already long enough).  Back in 2008 Alison Johnstone, then a councillor, secured Council backing for Edinburgh Parent Councils Network but, remarkably, the Administration simply refused to recognise it.  I have every admiration for the professionals working in schools but I am struck by how professionally-led the sector is compared to the sector in which I have worked all my life.  In housing, tenant participation is well-embedded in law and, in Edinburgh, the Council has, for years, funded an independent tenants federation which is not scared to stand on its own feet.  Education is a service which is much larger than the housing service yet the means by which service-user perspectives are heard is so much more rudimentary.

So what to do then?  The Capital Coalition Agreement has a commitment to exploring having a parent on the Education Committee.  But that needs to be part of a much bigger package – not least because of the unfair burden it would otherwise put on one or two people to be the voice of all parents.  So here’s my three suggested steps, as a starter.

Step one would be to have a strong statement of principle; an affirmation that the Council actually believes in the value of a deeper role for parents,  in three ways:

  • At the level of individual children and young people and how parents can support their learning and development – for example, through homework and re-inforcing project work.
  • At the level of schools as to how parents can enrich the texture of the schools – through organising clubs and activities, fundraising and events; and access to skills and into neighbourhoods, for example.
  • At the level of policy and priorities and how parents can strengthen the way the Council runs the Education service – through design of policies, setting budget priorities and planning for the long term.

Step two is to resource these adequately: at the first level, by giving schools the tools, at level two by re-vamping the Parental Involvement function to give it a development role; at the third level by bringing a parent perspective more fully into policy-making processes.

Step three is to improve communications.  Many schools are actively looking at this as a priority but, as far as I am aware, it is pretty much left up to schools to do this in isolation.  Greater coherence would be welcome.

I have not really talked about structures as I believe it is important to get attitudes and culture right first. Personally, I would scrap the CCWP and start again.  It might have been innovative in its time, but expectations have moved on and a much more fluid forum is needed, less tied down by being a formal committee and where agenda and priority-setting is shared.

In five years time Edinburgh could be held up as an exemplar – where parents were treated as partners.  Wouldn’t that be something worth aiming for?

I’d welcome feedback on this blog – either posted through the comments function or directly to me at gavin.corbett@edinburgh.gov.uk