Parent Participation In School Governance In Australia

In Australia, school-level broad parent bodies and school-level governance organisations with significant parental representation have formed peak bodies at state and territory level to represent their views to state governments, which have the major responsibility for the provision of schooling. In turn these state-level bodies have formed a national peak body, the Australian Council of State School Organisations (ACSSO) to represent their consolidated views to the national government. ACSSO therefore represents around 3 million parents with children in around 7000 state schools throughout Australia.

A fundamental policy of ACSSO is the right of parents to a high level of participation in determining educational policies which affect the schooling of their children, and a high level of participation in implementing those policies at school level. In this brief paper, I will attempt to summarise the structures which allow for parent participation in Australia, how they work in practice, and some current government policy directions which offer the potential to increase the level of parent participation, but which at the same time, have the potential to undermine the fundamental educational and democratic rationale for parent participation. While I believe that the views expressed are in general accord with the policies of ACSSO, they should not be taken in detail as a statement of ACSSO policy.

1. The diversity of Australian school systems

Understanding the role of parents in school governance in Australia, first requires an understanding of the diversity within Australian schools.

Diversity between States and Territories

The Australian school system is diverse, firstly, in that school education is primarily the responsibility of the state Governments. Thus, each state has its own rules and regulations, including those which regulate the role of parents in school governance. While the Commonwealth Government is increasingly inclined to set national targets in education on particular issues of national importance, such as literacy levels or targets for the participation of students of indigenous origin, it has never sought to specify national standards for parent participation.

State schools and private schools

Secondly, within each state, there are systems of state schools, which adhere to state frameworks which guarantee a broad comprehensive curriculum. These schools for the most part adhere to guidelines which oblige local comprehensive schools to take all students from a local enrolment area, while preserving the right of a parent to enrol their children in other schools, provided that those schools have the capacity to take them in. There is also provision in some states for state schools which offer curriculum specialisation, or in which enrolment is academically selective. In general the systems of state schools also take on the obligation to cater for all students, including the obligation to provide a place for all students with disabilities, and the obligation to provide alternative educational settings for even the most behaviourally difficult students. The state schools are by and large free of compulsory fees (although voluntary contributions can be sought to support school activities), and offer a secular curriculum, although limited periods of voluntary religious instruction are allowed. In this way, the state schools offer a place to all Australian children.

State schools generally receive funding from both state Departments of Education and from the Commonwealth Department of Education, on a mixed basis. Some of the funding is based on per capita funding. Some of it takes account of particular features of the communities which individual schools serve, such as the socio-economic status of families in the community, the number of students with disabilities, or from non-English speaking backgrounds, or of indigenous origin.

Some parents choose to send their children to schools which do not adhere to all the requirements and obligations of state schools, but which cater to particular parental choices. Thus, in addition to the state schools, there is a variety of private schools, all of which receive some, and some of which receive substantial, government funding.

The private school sector is extremely diverse, with at least three components.

ACSSO, which represents the parents of children in state schools, has detailed views on the nature and functions of the private schools and their relationship to state schools, which it is not appropriate to canvass in this forum. However, while, in general, private schools offer a comprehensive education, it is also clear that none of them offer the full range of social guarantees offered by state schools, even if some, particularly the systemic Catholic schools and some schools in the third component, have significant enrolments from socio-economically disadvantaged communities.

Clearly, the area of most acute tension in this diversity of educational provision is around government funding for private schools. On this ACSSO’s policy is clear. ACSSO believes that it is the primary responsibility of governments to fully fund those schools which offer curriculum and access guarantees to all Australian students, the systems of state schools. We do not advocate funding for private schools, but we believe that, if funding is to be allocated, it should take account of the extent to which the schools offer similar curriculum and access guarantees to those offered by state schools, and it should take account of the disadvantage of the communities that the schools serve.

2. Parent participation structures in state schools

Broad parent bodies
At the school level, there are generally two forms of structures which facilitate parent participation. Firstly there are organisations which exist to bring together all parents and to which all parents belong by right, or for a small fee. These organisations, variably called Parents and Citizens or Parents and Friends Associations, or Parent Clubs, clearly allow for participation of the wider community as well, although in practice this is very rare. They exist in all states, except in the Northern Territory, where many of their functions are picked up by School Councils. The origins of these organisations lie in fund-raising to support school activities, but they have increasingly taken on a role in policy development and advice at the school level, particularly with the development of formal structures for parental participation in governance. In some states, they are incorporated within the education system, in others they are totally independent organisations, and in South Australia they are committees of the school councils. So far, these differences appear to have had little impact on their operations.

School councils or boards

Most states have taken some moves towards creating formal structures for the participation of parents in school governance. These structures are variably called School Councils or School Boards, and generally have significant, sometimes a majority voice of elected parent representatives, who are always elected by the broader parent community, often through the broader parent group. These bodies also include the School Principal, representatives of the teachers, and of the community, as well as representatives appointed by the relevant Department of Education. The Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria have particularly long experience with these structures at school level, and in the Northern Territory the School Councils are the only parental structures which exist.

In general, these bodies take on overall policy formulation for their school, within the guidelines provided by the system of state schools of which they are part, and for the overall design of the school budget. Day-to-day operational management is in general a matter for the School Principal.

3. Parent participation at State or Territory system level

In all states, the broad parent groups in state schools have formed system level organisations which interact with governments and Departments of Education on matters of educational policy. Similarly, the school boards and councils have formed system level organisations to put their consolidated views to governments and Departments of Educations. In all existing cases, their role is generally advisory, both in terms of making direct representations to governments and through their participation in many advisory boards and reference groups. In many cases, parent organisations have been given voting positions on statutory authorities which determine curriculum and assessment procedures within government guidelines.

Only in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has there been a system-level governance structure with parent representation analogous to the school boards or councils. The ACT was for most of its existence administered directly by the Commonwealth Government, but its education system was initially controlled by the New South Wales Department of Education. When, after strong pressure from the local parent bodies, the ACT school system separated from that of New South Wales, the Commonwealth Government established a Schools Authority which had strong representation of parents and teachers. This controlled the state school system within the budgets and guidelines provided by the Commonwealth. However, with the granting of self-government to the ACT, and the appointment of an ACT Minister for Education, this structure has fallen into abeyance. Some of its functions have been picked up by a Ministerial Advisory Council, but management is now in the hands of a Department of Education under the control of the Minister.

  1. Parent participation at national level

Parent participation at national level is largely carried out by ACSSO. All broad parent peak bodies which have state-wide coverage are affiliated to ACSSO, from every State and Territory in Australia. The only exception is the Northern Territory, where these bodies do no exist as such, but in which many of the functions of these bodies are carried out by school councils. Similarly, all school council peak bodies which have state-wide coverage are affiliated to ACSSO, except for those from Victoria, where one body is affiliated to ACSSO and the other is not, and for one from the ACT, where the nature of the incorporation of school boards into the departmental structure has so far effectively precluded a genuinely independent function. School council peak organisations from Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory are affiliated to ACSSO, and the broad parent peak organisations in Tasmania, Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales are moving towards providing coverage for school councils and boards as they are either established or take on greater independence from departmental structures.

As at the state level, the role of ACSSO is essentially advocacy, through direct representations to government, responses to discussion papers, and advisory through representation on advisory committees and reference groups. In addition, two governmental bodies have played a special role in putting parent views to government. For several years, until finally abolished by the present Government, the Schools Commission and then the Schools Council played major roles as advisers on schooling to the Commonwealth Government and the Commonwealth Minister for Education. Parent representatives were always a distinct minority on these bodies, and theoretically they were appointed by the Minister-of-the-day, rather than by ACSSO. But, in practice, Ministers saw the sense of getting representative views, rather than personal idiosyncratic opinions, although they often insisted on the "right" to choose from a panel of nominees. When these bodies were well-resourced, which was not always the case, they were able to deliver well-researched and well-formulated advice, in which parent views were often strongly reflected.

  1. Some reflections on the operations of these structures

It is important to make a perhaps obvious point right at the beginning; that structures only provide the potential for working well, it is people that have to make them work. Thus, these reflections will cover both some reflections on which structures have the potential to work, and on the things which make them work.

State and national level

How well the advisory role of parents organisations works in practice depends on a number of factors. In no particular order of priority, these include:

Parent groups have consistently and successfully argued for greater participation in these advisory structures, but our success has come at some cost. Our largely volunteer organisations have sometimes found themselves swamped with requests for participation.

It is clear that this input is valued both by politicians and bureaucrats, even if the messages they receive are sometimes unpalatable. For changes in educational policy to be successful, they must win the support of parents, and it has proven, in general, to be more effective to sort out problems prior to implementation, and to obtain the support of the parent organisations in explaining and popularising those changes. Of course, this is not always the case, particularly when new Ministers with strong ideological positions decide to make big changes. But most Ministers learn the value of robust consultation processes, and this is demonstrated by the fact that the Commonwealth Government has provided continued funding to support ACSSO since 1976, through several changes of government, and by the fact that all of the state-level bodies affiliated to ACSSO have received and continue to receive significant support from government, except recently in Victoria.

The advisory role of the parent organisations can be usefully supplemented by well-resourced bodies capable of formulating detailed advice with parent involvement. For example, when the Schools Council was abolished, the Commonwealth Minister proposed replacing it with a Forum of Peak Teacher Professional Organisations, and then with a body composed of practising class-room teachers who would be seconded from their duties for meetings to provide him with advice. After four years, there has been no action on either of these proposals, possibly because a belated recognition of the impractibility of some of the proposals, and perhaps the potential for them to become ungovernable. ACSSO believes that the Schools Commission and Council played a very positive role, and believes that a body with similar functions but greater parental representation should now be established at national level. There is an obvious place for similar structures at state level. The Ministerial Advisory Council on Government Schooling in the ACT provides a good example.

There is also a strong case for bodies with greater authority. The state level statutory bodies with responsibility for curriculum and assessment provide interesting examples, which could be made more general than they currently are. And the now defunct Schools Authority in the ACT, and current debates about the re-establishment of a similar body, which appears to have the support of both the broad parent organisations and the school boards, may provide some interesting ways forward.

School level

At school level, there are a number of operational problems. A major continuing problem is that of ensuring a high level of parent participation in the broad parent organisations. Experience over a long period of time suggests that an on-going participation rates of only a few percent of the parent community are what can generally be expected. This has often led to questioning of how representative the parent bodies are in reality, but our experience shows that when there are major issues on the agenda, the level of participation rises significantly. Moreover, the policies advocated by parent organisations have been developed over 50 years of extensive debate and refinement, and have been well-tested in the field.

Past controversial issues have included the place of religious instruction in state schools and the need for special provisions to improve outcomes for students from indigenous backgrounds, but there is now general consensus in favour of severe limitations on the first, and the need to place greater emphasis on the second. Of course, not all parent communities subscribe to all of the state and national policy positions of parent organisations, but it has once again been our general experience that when the issues are debated thoroughly in parent communities, there is overwhelming support for them.

I will give just one example of this. Recently Australia has seen the rise of a political party, One Nation, which has argued against special programs to enhance the situation of indigenous communities, but our policies in favour of special programs in indigenous education continue to receive overwhelming support. ACSSO is currently engaged in a special project with funding from the Commonwealth Government to pilot schemes for enhancing outcomes for indigenous students, by creating structures and programs which encourage the participation of indigenous parents in the broader parent organisations and, through that, in the life of the school in general. Some of these pilot schemes are running in areas in which the One Nation vote was extremely high, but we have been impressed by the strong support for these programs within the broad parent organisations, and the support for them that has been forth-coming from the wider local communities.

The issue of engaging indigenous parents to enhance educational outcomes for their children is just part of a larger picture. In addition to the problem of low overall participation rates, there is a particular problem with engaging parents from socio-economically disadvantaged or different cultural backgrounds, in organisations whose structures are favourable to and presently dominated by white, educated, middle class people. All parent bodies have put considerable thought into this problem, and there is a constant emphasis on the need to value all forms of parent participation, not just in governance, but in helping children learn to read, in sporting and craft activities and in the school canteen and other fund-raising activities, as well as the support that parents give to their children in learning at home. With this broad view of parent participation, it is clear that the real rate of parent participation is much higher than that indicated by the participation rates in formal bodies. There is considerable potential to expand this high level of participation in schooling into stronger and more politically powerful parent communities. Put bluntly, when an overwhelming majority of parents in school communities see increased government funding for their schools as a top political priority, this is a message which no politician could afford to ignore.

Our indigenous education project provides a model of how parent organisations may take a role in activities directed towards increasing educational outcomes for students, which would take our organisations well beyond our traditional roles in governance and policy-formulation, fund-raising to support school programs, and provision of services such as canteens, uniform supplies, and after-school hours programs. School-level broad parent organisations may play an increasing role in a range of learning activities within our schools, particularly in areas such as reading programs, sporting and arts and crafts activities and a range of enrichment activities such as debating and participation in general knowledge and problem-solving competitions.

An important approach has been funded both by governments and on occasions directly by parent organisations, because it clearly has benefits in terms of educational outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as the wider benefits from our perspective discussed above. This approach involves the appointment of community development workers or school liaison officers, preferably recruited from the local community rather than from a panel of social workers, to encourage parents to get involved. ACSSO has suggested that the Commonwealth Government should provide the funding for a community development worker in at least the bottom 25% of the index of socio-economic disadvantaged, which would cost around $125 million a year. The government has indicated that it is prepared to give this proposal serious consideration, but so far this remains nothing more than an expression of good intent. We also believe that schools should provide space for a "parent centre", where parents can meet in a less formal situation than in meetings with the principal and staff. Where this approach is working in schools, there have been clear advantages in terms of the level of parent participation in many aspects of schooling, as well as in educational outcomes for students. An important issue for ACSSO is to ensure that these initiatives to enhance parental participation in schooling are in the hands of those best placed to mobilise parents, the parent community, rather than in the hands of teachers and social workers.

Other operational problems at the school level include the tendency of many principals to use parent organisations simply as fund-raising bodies, but to exclude them from policy matters, a constant problem on which peak bodies are constantly giving advice on their rights to parents, and where necessary, support. It is also true that many school principals attempt to dominate the operations of the board or council of their school, but both these tendencies can be overcome by determined parents.

The relationship between the broad parent body and the school council, where it exists, is sometimes difficult. Sometimes the difficulties are related to personalities, or are over minor operational matters. However, the differences can be exaggerated by the lack of accountability of parent members of councils and boards, once elected, and we would favour a requirement for systematic reporting to meetings of the broad parent bodies and the right of recall of elected members. The latter measure may sound extreme, but when school councils end up at logger-heads with their parent communities, then the school is generally dysfunctional and urgent action is required.

There is however the potential for more systematic differences to appear. The broad parent body tends to look at issues of principle, while the school councils and boards tend to focus on managerial and operational matters, including school budgets. This divergence should not be over-stated, but it has led to some policy differences over the issue of compulsory fees in government schools, with one of the school council bodies affiliated to ACSSO supporting them. But it must be stressed that the other two school council affiliates are as strong in their opposition as are all the broad parent affiliates.

  1. Some future directions and threats

I think it is fair to say that in the ACT, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Victoria, where school councils have existed for some years, there is strong support for their continued existence, and discussion focuses on how to defend their structures, appropriately increase their powers, and make them work better, including how to make them more responsible to the broad parent community.

However, where school councils are just coming into existence, in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, there is considerable hesitation, if not suspicion, on the part of the existing broad parent bodies to the moves to establish them. In part, this appears to spring from observations of some of the operational problems outlined above, and in part from the fact that these broad parent bodies have obtained considerable influence over the running of the school, through the regular attendance of the school principal at meetings of the parent group and through other mechanisms, which they believe could be undermined by moves to establish more formal bodies.

However, undoubtedly the major reason for hesitation, and one which concerns all parent groups, is that the moves towards the establishment of school councils where they currently do not exist, are taking place in a climate in which governments of all persuasions are moving towards significant levels of school-based management. There is a general pattern of financial devolution, as school budgets get tighter, and administrative deregulation, coupled with increasing emphasis on quantitative measures of school performance and school league tables. A quite commonly held view is that the aim is to shift the responsibility for improving educational outcomes away from government policies and government funding to school-level educational and financial management.

The original rationale for parent participation in governance was to ensure that the school curriculum was appropriately adapted to the needs of the local community, both in terms of content and in terms of mode of delivery. It was an important part of breaking down the tightly prescriptive curriculum models which had existed, which were backed up by systems of school inspectors. Early enthusiasm may have taken this process a little too far, leading schools, particularly teachers to spend too much time re-inventing the curriculum wheel, and in fact only a few years back, there was little parent or teacher resistance to moves to bring in much less prescriptive curriculum frameworks.

Unfortunately, more recently the move towards more prescriptive frameworks, a national curriculum, benchmark standards and school league tables has accelerated, largely driven by financial pressures from the Commonwealth Government. Now is not the time to deal in detail with the complex issues of assessment and reporting and school accountability, but ACSSO has developed quite detailed policies on these issues. Suffice to say that ACSSO is completely opposed to public league tables, because of the danger of confounding school performance with the socio-demographic characteristics of the community the school serves, potentially undermining good schools. ACSSO also believes that there are grave dangers in confounding assessment regimes of the kind used for aggregation of results, which are inevitably restricted both in content and time, with the rich school-based assessments which are most useful for monitoring and supporting the progress of individual students. To avoid this possibility ACSSO advocates that any testing for national and state-wide reporting be carried out through light statistical sampling. At the same time, ACSSO believes that, at least for the state schools, Education Departments have a responsibility to monitor school performance, and to provide support and reform programs where they are required, including increased funding to deal with issues of social disadvantage.

On the issue of financial devolution, ACSSO is determined that governments will not be able to use it to avoid their funding responsibilities. Whether financial devolution is useful in terms of improving educational outcomes for students, which is the final criterion, is yet to be determined, but factors we are watching include the administrative load on school councils and parents in general and the effect of the increased administrative duties on the role of the principal in educational leadership. The final balance may of course vary from school to school, and from time to time, and the system adopted has to protect schools from differential and fluctuating ability to promote educational outcomes for all students .

But the biggest dangers appear to lie in administrative devolution. At present, as outlined above, the state school systems offer the guarantee of a place to all students in their local school, or in special cases appropriate alternative educational settings, with a guarantee of no compulsory fees, and the guarantee of a comprehensive and secular curriculum. Unfortunately, there are some strong advocates of breaking down these guarantees, including amongst Professors of Education, either by deregulating all schools (for an Australian academic proponent, see Gannicott, Taking Education Seriously. A Reform Program for Australia’s Schools, Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, 1997), or by allowing some existing local comprehensive schools to opt out of at least some of the guarantees, for example by allowing them to charge compulsory fees or to enrol on a selective basis (for Australian academic proponents, see Caldwell and Hayward, The Future of Schools, Lessons from the Reform of Public Education, Falmer Press, London, 1998). The continued existence of the systems of state schools is of no concern to Gannicott, since his avowed aim is to abolish them. However Caldwell and Hayward have been completely unable to explain how their apparently more moderate proposals can be made consistent with the continuation of the guarantees currently offered by systems of government schools to all students.

ACSSO believes that the benefits of administrative devolution must be considered pragmatically, up to the point at which the administrative freedom allowed undermines the guarantee of access to a free public education for all Australian students. Beyond that point is a "no go" area, as far as we are concerned. Despite the recent enthusiasms of some governments for moves in these directions, attempts by state governments to water down the guarantees of access to a free public education in South Australia and Western Australia have been thwarted by determined opposition from parents, and by a majority of political parties and independent members of parliament. In Victoria, the Self-Governing Schools scheme now allows state schools to hire and fire staff, but has stopped short of imposing compulsory fees. The move to the devolution of staffing has already met with predictable opposition from teachers and many parents, and the Commonwealth Minister for Education increased funding for private schools markedly in the latest Commonwealth Budget, with only minimal increases for state schools, explicitly as part of a "wider strategy" to force "reform" in the state schools against the education unions and "so-called parent groups". We are confident that similar moves will be blocked by strong opposition.

  1. Some comments on parent participation in the private sector

Paradoxically, for a sector which is supposed to offer parents choice, there are fewer and in general less effective structures and mechanisms for parent participation in governance in the private sector. This does not mean that there are not active parent organisations and active parents in this sector, and indeed ACSSO works on most issues quite closely with the Australian Parents’ Council. But at school and state level, where they talk to individual school managements or to system-wide management structures in the Catholic system, their influence does not seem to be as strong. This is particularly clear on some of the social issues discussed above, where relatively liberal parents have little influence over their schools, compared to less liberal Catholic Education Offices and an even less liberal clergy, particularly at senior levels. Given that the clergy itself has been under criticism by the Vatican for its liberal and pragmatic views, apparently contaminated by the general tolerance of Australian society, it is possible that the tensions within the systemic Catholic schools around these issues may increase.

In some ways, the private sector is a classical free-market, in which consumers (ie parents) either accept what is on offer, or move on. There is, of course, always the free-market option of opening a new, more appropriate private school, but the realities of the market are that this rarely happens. But this is also a strange free-market in that the sellers (ie schools) not uncommonly force parents to move on, particularly when their children pose educational problems. Thus, capacity to pay and early pre-enrolment are no guarantee of a place in a private school, and expulsion or pressure to move out is far from rare. This is not to say that these schools do not offer preventive counselling and pastoral care. But they have no obligation to work through difficult problems with students, and there is plenty of evidence that they frequently resort to moving their serious problems on. The systemic Catholic schools are somewhat different, in that they appear to make greater attempts to assist students at risk and in trouble, although they too have no legal obligation in the final analysis.

To give just one example, we have recently seen a spate of expulsion of students from private schools for minor drug offences, such as smoking marijuana off school premises and out of school uniform, leaving the parents of these students to find them a new school. State schools would be less likely to over-react to such cases, but, since state school systems have an obligation to cater for all students, if students were expelled from their local school, the system would in any case have an obligation to provide an alternative educational setting.

ACSSO believes that the parent participation models which operate in state schools, and which we are determined to expand, offer much greater possibilities to most parents than the exercise of free-market choice, and offer much greater potential for increasing broad educational outcomes for all students. In the final analysis, that is a major positive for state schools.

  1. Conclusion

Parent participation in governance operates in all state schools and systems of state schools through a combination of formal school councils at school level, and advisory and consultative mechanisms which exist at school, state and national level. While these have some inevitable operational problems, there are also ways in which they can be improved. Recent government initiatives and proposals for reform emanating from some educational theorists, while purporting to enhance parent participation, may in fact compromise the effectiveness of these mechanisms, and could disaggregate the existing systems of state schools. Nevertheless, parent participation in school governance at all levels offers a real alternative to the free-market models of parent choice - one which unlike the free-market has been shown in practice to deliver broad educational guarantees for all students, while giving parents a significant say in the shaping and running of their schools.

Dr Ian Morgan