Parents have an opportunity to be involved in the lives of their children right from the nursery stage. At the latest at the school stage, they have a statutory opportunity for parental representation and parents have this right, prescribed in the Education Act, until their children attain the age of majority (when they can speak for themselves) or have left school.
1.1 The first stage
The right of parental representation therefore starts from a very early time. From the 1st class at primary school, parents can choose their representative and his deputy at class level. At the same time, all parents in the class choose the members of the class and reports conference since the parents also have an entitlement to a say in teaching matters. These members are elected for two years.
Although there are clear regulations for the voting rights of parents in the conferences, parent representatives are otherwise free to take up and discuss topics they consider important. Under the law, they are required to invite other parents to a parents’ evening only once per school half-year. They therefore have a lot of scope for action.
1.2 The second stage
The parental representatives of a class are automatically members of the school parents’ committee. This committee monitors the overall situation of the school and can assert its right to information and participation to the school principal. The school parents’ committee too is relatively free in terms of the topics it can consider. This committee also meets at least once per school half year.
From among its members, the school parents’ committee elects members of the general conference and the departmental conferences with voting rights, and it also has a mandate in the local authority school committee. The general conference is the most important decision making body in the school. Under the chairmanship of the principal, all teachers, the pupil representatives, parent representatives and the school supporter are all members of this committee and it sets down the educational guidelines, defines the profile of the school, makes decisions on school books, funding and teaching release and other matters that generally affect the school. It even deals with classrooms and equipment, teaching and educational material.
1.3 The third stage
The members of the school parents’ committee choose two delegates for the election to the city or district parents’ committee, which similarly takes place every two years. This parent representing body is made up of representatives of all the various school forms. Participating in this committee are representatives of primary schools, 5th and 6th year school promotion stages, non-selective secondary modern schools, secondary technical schools, grammar schools, special schools, vocational schools and independent schools, i.e. private schools, and where they exist also comprehensive schools.
The work of the district parents’ committee depends to a large extent on the views of its members. A school is not directly represented in this body, instead problems are discussed that affect all types of school. In this committee too, teaching supply plays a part, school books are discussed, school building projects are negotiated, but always from a national point of view. Another important topic is pupil transport.
The chairpersons of the district and city parents’ committees hold working party meetings at higher regional level more or less regularly.
1.4 The fourth stage
Every four years, all district parents’ committees elect the members of the state parents’ committee which assumes the role of contact for the Ministry of Education of that particular state. It has to prepare comments on draft bills, is involved in the development of schooling, can complain about deficient teaching supply and urge the appointment of teachers. In professionally oriented working groups, decisions are worked out and prepared, participants hear experts from the Ministry speaking on bills and ask them for their opinions. The strong position of the state parents’ committee is apparent from the fact that bills cannot be put into force without the approval of the parent representatives. The state government can only assert its political will against the will of the parent representing body through a very precisely defined procedure.
1.5 The further stages
Delegates from the individual state parents’ committees from the national parents’ committee which is similar to a working party. As is the European Parents Association (EPA) which is an umbrella organisation of all parent representing bodies in Europe.
2.1 Parental involvement - what is the point?
2.1.1 A personal view
When we accompanied our daughter Ann-Kristin to primary school for her first day at school more than twelve years ago, she already had a year of school behind her - preparatory school. And during this one year, we parents gained experience of parent participation, we were certain we didn’t want to continue this way because nothing happened. There were neither getting-to-know parties nor parent evenings, nor parent meetings, nor discussions with teachers. Quite simply nothing happened.
Jutta, my wife and I had wonderful ideas of what ‘school’ could be like from a parents’ point of view. We had a very precise picture of school life. We pictured what we as parents would like to initiate and carry out in the school, what we wanted to do for the children in the form and for our daughter in order to make school time as pleasant and efficient as possible and at the same time unforgettable. Not only that, her social behaviour was to develop positively. In short, it was to be a school time she would look back on with positive memories.
In other words, we would have to play an active part ourselves. Since then, I have been chairman of the parents’ association on a class level. In the first instance in Ann-Kristin’s classes, subsequently in the classes of her younger brother, Ole-Kristof. Firstly solely on class level, later as chairman of the school parents’ committee, for several years even at district level, and latterly for a long time in the board of the committee.
2.1.2 Well what of it?
With my active involvement in parent participation, I have spent quite a few hours speaking to teachers establishing, analysing, weighting and solving problems, discussing educational theses with parents, the school principal and supervisors. In doing so, I always kept the pupils in mind, because their perception and experience of all this should be positive.
Because I am relatively free as a parent representative in the choice of what I want to and can do, I worried about better information, issued letters to parents, introduced discussion for a, so-called "aquarium meetings" (because they took place near the aquarium in the school hall), spoke to pupil representatives, introduced important aspects in conferences that sometimes threatened to go by the board, noticed time and again in reports conferences that the teachers have a great deal more commitment and objectivity than has always been maintained.
I have taken care of teaching supply, pupil transport, school development, school building and school programmes, have initiated actions against violence and vandalism, have weighed pupil rucksacks with health experts and initiated drug prevention in the school.
This certainly hasn’t done our children any harm. They have been treated no better nor worse than their classmates, no matter what school they were in. For them, they just needed to know that they would not have to go through school alone, that there was always someone else there. Not only in the everyday homework. They have also learnt through this that democracy starts in the family and does not stop in school. They have become open to problems and topics of school they might not otherwise have even perceived. Finally, many actions were initiated that would not have happened without active parent representing bodies, which would then not have been engraved on the memory so well.
I believe that it is good to play a positive part in school; good for our children, good for the classes of our children, good for the teachers, good for the schools, good for the children who go into the schools, because some things - and I have learnt this too - simply have to be considered over a much longer time than appears necessary.
Often, many of the things we initiate today as parents are only put into practice after our children have long left the school. Schools don’t live just for the day.
And I have also learnt to act with a sense of proportion, not egotistically by just thinking of our own children. We have learnt to discuss topics and problems objectively and openly, to consider both sides and to keep on talking. Talking exchanging thoughts - something that even today takes place all too little. Even (and not only) in the school.
Lothar H Bluhm