Since they first appeared on governing bodies, parent governors have been on the receiving end of many accusations: that they focus on their own children at the expense of the wider school population, that they dwell on insignificant detail or that they bring an axe to grind.
It’s not just high profile critics of governance who have expressed these attitudes about parent governors, experience tells me it’s often headteachers and other governors who feel this way too. And I’m sure some of the time they’ve been justified. But only now that the government has announced its intention to remove the requirement for academy trusts to have parent governors does it bring into sharper focus what schools could lose. Because despite their flaws, it’s important to remember the large part parent governors have played in improving schools over the past thirty years or so – not just in a theoretical sense, but in a concrete one too: with every meeting attended, every headteacher’s report read, every question asked and every school visit made.
First mandated by the Education Act 1980 (one of Mrs. Thatcher’s early pieces of legislation, no less!), parent governors have since gone on to play a significant role in school oversight. Such was the importance attached to them that the government planned in the mid-80s to make them a majority on all governing bodies (though this was eventually scaled back and they were given equal representation with staff and local authority governors). Granted, a lot else has changed since the early 80s, but the presence of parent governors has nevertheless coincided with a period in which schools have become far more accountable to, and focused on, their community. Standards have risen. While not every parent governor has taken on the responsibility with the conduct and commitment expected, a great many have.
One criticism you often hear about parent governors is that they can’t always provide the targeted and high-level challenge the headteacher and senior leadership team need to secure improvement. This has been the main narrative behind the government’s skills drive and dismantling of the so-called “stakeholder framework” for governance. There is something to be said for this, but such a straightforward view risks overlooking the unique role parent governors play. Their presence on governing bodies has emphasised that the business of schooling should be a shared endeavour. It helps to engage parents by recognising their critical interest in the education of their children, and headteachers are reminded of the need to consider and explain the reasons for their decisions. In doing so, headteachers and other leaders are provided with a crucial grounding. Many academy trusts, I’m sure, will want to hold on to this.
Responses to the announcement have undoubtedly been intensified by uncertainty over what parental accountability will look like in the future. While the government says it expects all academy trusts to ramp up representation on so-called “parent councils”, it’s likely, in the spirit of the academy programme, that whatever systems emerge will vary considerably. In any case, at a time of fiscal pressure for schools, I’m sure many will feel confused that the government “expects” academy trusts to expand payment of appointed trustees while moving away from the pool of committed and interested parents they currently draw upon for free.
The challenge for academy trusts will be to maintain a sense of shared purpose with parents. For more than thirty years, parents have been invited to take joint responsibility for the performance of their child’s school. If those overseeing schools seem distant and inaccessible, the risk is that parental participation could more quickly turn to protest, should something go wrong.