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«GOVERNMENT’S CONSTRUCTION OF THE RELATION BETWEEN PARENTS AND SCHOOLS IN THE UPBRINGING OF CHILDREN IN ENGLAND: 1963–2009 David Bridges Faculty of ...»

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21. Joan Sallis, School Managers and Governors: Taylor and After (London: Ward Lock, 1977), 25.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation Though many schools had in fact already begun to collect governors who were also parents, it was the 1980 Education Act that for the first time formally required that every school should have a governing body that included elected parents (and teachers). A little later, the 1986 Education Act (no. 2) required schools to have (according to size) between two and five elected parent governors;

required governing bodies to provide parents with specified information about syllabuses and the like; and required that governing bodies present to parents annual reports at an annual meeting open to all parents.22 The 1988 Education Reform Act gave additional significance to these changes by providing for the extension of the powers of governing bodies, for example, through local financial management.23 It also provided for schools to be required to admit students up to the level of available capacity, in effect extending (albeit marginally) the possibility for parental choice of school, but we shall turn to this later.

On the face of it, these changes gave a new measure of power to the 75,000 parent governors who took up office in the six-year period between 1986 and 1992.24 However, research suggests that a proportion of these parents were bewildered by their new responsibilities and lacked the stomach for the sometimes heavily politicized conflicts in which the governing bodies became embroiled: ‘‘There is a minority which feels marginalised by manipulative heads, outranked by LEA-nominated veterans, mystified by educational jargon, intimidated by paperwork.’’25 Let us note that in any case there were only between two and five such governors in any one school — that is, a very small minority of the total parent body. Moreover, elected parent governors remained a minority element on the governing bodies. The proposals contained in the green paper Parental Influence at School that parents should elect from among their number a majority of seats on governing bodies had been rejected even by organized parent groups.26 There is little evidence that other parents (that is, the vast majority of parents) felt or were significantly empowered by their presence on the governing bodies. In most schools only a minority of parents bothered to take part in the elections for these parent governors or to attend the Annual Parents’ Meeting that was the primary vehicle for accountability between governors and parents. The Cambridge Accountability Project had already illustrated how skeptical the broad mass of parents were regarding those who formally represented them on school bodies.27

22. Education (No. 2) Act 1986, part II, clause 3, and part III, clause 20; http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts.

23. Education Reform Act 1988, sect. 33ff; http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1988/Ukpga 19880040 en 1.

24. This represents, incidentally, the largest number of voluntary workers in any section of UK society.

25. Michael Golby, ‘‘Parents as School Governors,’’ in Parents and Schools, ed. Munn, 73.

26. Department of Education and Science, Parental Influence at School: A New Framework for School Government in England and Wales, Green Paper, Cmnd. 9242 (London: HMSO, 1984).

27. David Bridges, ‘‘It’s the Ones Who Never Turn Up That You Really Want to See: The ‘Problem’ of the Non-attending Parent,’’ and ‘‘Accountability, Communication and Control,’’ both in School 310 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 For many parents, PTA committees and governing bodies were simply spheres of influence for what one critic called ‘‘articulate, adroit and literate ‘political’ people.’’28 Perhaps the presence of parents as governors and their modest measure of accountability to fellow parents has contributed to school governors’ and senior professional managers’ awareness of parental opinion and responsiveness to it. Perhaps it is a significant ingredient among others for changing the relation and even developing a partnership between parents and schools, but it hardly amounts to the meat of such a partnership in the routine experience of many individual parents. For that perhaps we need to look in another direction.

In any case, though the legislation passed during the 1980s offered parents greater access to schools, more information, and even some power, at the same time it took away many of the key levers of power with respect to what went on in those schools as government drew more and more control, in particular over curriculum and assessment, to the center. Sheila Wolfendale writes of ‘‘a dual

philosophy’’ that appears to run through the legislation of this decade:

On the one hand, the educational process is opened up for parents; they gain access to hitherto arcane and at worst secretive decision making; they appear to have genuine choice in respect of educational spending.... These rights increase the accountability to parents of teachers and educational administrators. On the other hand, schooling is now so regulated at each phase that individual parents might find it difficult to penetrate the thicket of National Curriculum and assessment arrangements to seek redress for any grievance they might have.29 Partnership: Schools and Parents as Coeducators Arguably, an important feature of a partnership in the educational process is a shared recognition of their reciprocal responsibilities and mutual respect between the two partners for the roles that each can play. It is barely sufficient for this purpose to present parents as marginal supporters in an educative task that is otherwise the exclusive responsibility of professional teachers. It also barely accords with the facts. Most children will have achieved their greatest intellectual achievement — mastering the basics of a natural language — under parental guidance before coming anywhere near a teacher. Parents must be regarded — preschool, in parallel with school, and postschool — as a major developmental and educative force in their children’s lives. One constructive dimension of the notion of the school-parent partnership in education (one neglected by the Taylor Committee) is the notion of parents as coeducators with the school — a role for parents that the schools themselves can help parents to develop.





Accountability: Social Science Research Council Cambridge Accountability Project, ed. John Elliott, David Bridges, Dave Ebutt, Rex Gibson, and Jennifer Nias (London: Grant MacIntyre, 1981).

28. Arthur Seldon, Capitalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 198.

29. Sheila Wolfendale, Empowering Parents and Teachers (London: Cassell, 1992), 13.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation In the UK the development of parents as coeducators has tended to focus on preschool education and special education,30 but already educators in both the UK and the United States were coming to appreciate the benefits to children of, for example, programs for the teaching of reading that had a clearly defined role for parents as well as teachers. In 1975 the highly influential Bullock Report gave its imprimatur to the idea of parents (usually mothers) coming into school to participate in language and beginning-reading activities that could also be extended into the home, confirming encouragingly that ‘‘there is room for many such activities.’’31 Some notable projects produced impressive evidence of the success of partnership schemes.32 They spread rapidly throughout the UK, though they remained largely confined to primary education and to the subjects of English and to a lesser extent math. By 1991 a Department of Education and Science survey celebrated the fact that 75 percent of all primary schools had set up a ‘‘formal partnership’’ with parents to involve them in reading programs.33 In 1993 the Community Education Development Centre claimed ‘‘a huge and convincing body of evidence and experience showing that, when teachers and parents work together in a practical partnership towards shared goals, there are real gains in pupil achievement that are both considerable and lasting.’’34 I do not propose to enter into a detailed evaluation of this evidence, though I suggest that even allowing that some of the claims made may be excessive, it is difficult to pinpoint any other strategy for the improvement of children’s learning with anything like the same evidence of benefit to children’s progress.

Moreover, though this must of course be the overriding consideration, the virtues of this kind of very practical partnership do not just end with the benefits to children’s learning. Such schemes do something to restore to parents their alienated role in the education — or, better, upbringing — of their own children;

they are acknowledged, valued, and supported in this role. At the same time, the professionalism of teachers is recognized, reinforced, and perhaps extended as they work in support of and in collaboration with parents rather than at a distance from

30. See Sheila Wolfendale, Parental Participation in Children’s Development and Education (London:

Gordon and Breach, 1983), with particular reference to special education.

31. Department of Education and Science, A Language for Life: Report of the Committee of Inquiry [Bullock Report] (London: HMSO, 1975).

32. See, for example, Jenny Hewison and J. Tizard, ‘‘Parental Involvement and Reading Attainment,’’ British Journal of Educational Psychology 50, no. 3 (1980): 209–215, in which the authors report on the Haringey Reading Project; Wolfendale, Parental Participation in Children’s Development and Education; or, for a more recent review of the literature, see Charles Desforges and Alberto Abouchaar, ‘‘The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support, and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: A Literature Review,’’ Department for Education and Skills Research Report RP433 (London: The Queen’s Printer, 2003).

33. Department of Education and Science, The Parents Charter (London: Department of Education and Science, 1991).

34. Community Education Development Centre, Parents as Co-educators (Coventry: Community Education Development Centre, 1993), 11.

312 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 them. Furthermore, parents gain understanding of various aspects of classrooms and education and more confidence within the school environment and in their relation with teachers.35 What is astonishing is the lack of encouragement and positive support these developments have received from government. The reason is perhaps rooted more in social and political ideology than anything else. The kind of relation between school and parents that I have described here is an intimately collaborative one based on mutual respect, understanding, and support. The Community Education

Development Centre picks out four key features:

• the sharing of power, responsibility, and ownership, though not necessarily in immediately apparent ways or on an equal basis;

• a degree of mutuality, which begins with the process of listening to each other and incorporates a responsive dialogue and ‘‘give and take’’ on both sides;

• shared aims and goals, based on common ground but allowing for the acknowledgment of important differences; and

• joint action, with parents, professionals, and pupils working together to get things done.36 But mutuality, responsive dialogue, the equalization of power, joint action, and the ethos of collaboration are a far cry from the social and political ideology that government has brought to education and indeed all other public services over the last three decades. Parents are enjoined not to joint action, but to choice;

not to participate, but to discriminate and to complain if they are not getting what they want. Parents are not partners in the educational enterprise but customers or clients for a service that is provided by someone else. It marks the triumph of the individualistic ethos of competition for personal self-interest over the collectivist ethos of collaboration in the interests of general welfare.

However, the limitation of parental involvement programs from this point of

view was articulated some years ago by Henry Acland:

The essence of parent participation is that parents come to school, learn about the way school operates and through doing this become more effective so far as their children’s education is concerned. It is clear that parents are there to understand and accept; they are not there to represent their own position if this conflicts with the school.... The programmes do nothing to alter the fundamental relationship between home and school. The potential for the parents to make choices or decisions about their child’s education is not increased.37

35. See Liverpool LEA, The Liverpool Policy on Parental Involvement in Education (Liverpool: Liverpool City Council, 1991); and Warwickshire LEA, Reporting to Parents (Warwick: Warwickshire County Council, 1991). Both are quoted extensively in the Community Education Development Centre’s Parents as Co-educators.

36. Community Education Development Centre, Parents as Co-educators, 12.

37. Henry Acland, ‘‘Does Parent Involvement Matter?’’ in Social and Education Research in Action, ed.

Michael John Wilson (London: Longmans, 1979), 46.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation Whether or not this account does justice to the best of parent-school partnership schemes, it is the pursuit of this element of choice in a free market of educational opportunity, rather than the cultivation of a collaborative partnership, that came to dominate the political agenda.

Performativity and the Market The 1970s saw considerable debate around the idea of school accountability to parents and the forms that it might take. For a short period, schools sought to head off more centralized and bureaucratic forms of accountability with ideas of ‘‘selfaccounting’’ schools linked intimately to local communities,38 but government was already capturing the accountability discourse, defining it as a form of centralized government surveillance and control exercised through

• a national system of school inspection by the Office for Standards in Education, or OfSTED, with publicly available reports; and

• a national system of pupil assessment linked to the publication of performance tables.

This was a system that simultaneously allowed government to ‘‘drive up’’ performance by setting targets for the progress of individual schools in terms of the achievement of students on test scores and to provide the information that it thought parents might require as a basis for choosing a school for their children in a competitive market environment.

The reconceptualization of the parental relation to the school as that of customer to service industry represents a radical departure from any of the other relations described here insofar as it has been linked crucially in government thinking to the notion of parental choice of school. All the other relations I have described have operated in the context in which parents and school were very largely bound to each other by the parents’ accident (or, of course, for some people choice) of place of residence.

For the ‘‘new right,’’ and eventually for the Conservative government, the key conditions for improving the quality of education in schools (as indeed for many other public services, including health and transport) were the introduction of market conditions in which the state monopoly — or in the case of education the LEA monopoly39 — was broken; information about the character and quality of alternative service providers was available; and parents, the customers in the market place, were given the maximum possible choice.

38. Elliott et al., School Accountability: Social Science Research Council Cambridge Accountability Project (London: Grant MacIntyre, 1981).



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