Parents as Partners in Northern Ireland Schools

1.1 Introduction

In the last quarter of the twentieth century an enormous change has taken place in the nature and substance of opportunity for parents to involve themselves in the education of their children, in school as well as at home. No longer are schools the sole preserve of teachers, no-go areas for parents. Today parents are involved in decisions on a wide range of matters concerning their children’s schooling, since education is now premised on a series of partnerships. It has become policy to encourage partnerships with the community, industry, higher education, other schools. The partnership that has the greatest potential for all the partners is the partnership between schools and parents and the people who benefit most are the children (Wolfendale et al, 1992). In recognition of this, there is concern expressed for parent empowerment across Europe (Eurydice, 1998; Wolfendale, 1992). This paper examines the evolving role of parents as partners in the education process in Northern Ireland.

In order to understand the role of parents in the education of their children anywhere it is important to be familiar with the context. In Northern Ireland this is particularly so. The state was born in 1920 amidst division and communal disorder which has continued to characterise its history. It was born as a result of partitioning of the island of Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act (1920), a compromise which created the twenty-six county Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) leaving the six north-eastern counties to form Northern Ireland as a state within the UK. This new state contained two starkly opposed communities where religion, housing, politics, geography and education remain inextricably bound (Keane, 1990). Religious identity, a handy label of difference between the sides, is the boundary between two ethnic groups, Protestants and Catholics. From 1921 the majority Protestant population, generally favouring continuing union with the rest of the UK, has ruled Catholics whose preference generally is incorporation with the rest of Ireland. Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and Government to deal with domestic affairs, including education, until 1972 when it was suspended. Since then, Northern Ireland has been governed by ‘direct rule’ from Westminster through a Secretary of State who takes responsibility for the functions that remain separately administered. One of these is education. However, new structural arrangements are currently being put into place which will devolve power to a Northern Ireland Assembly and give the Dublin government a voice in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Both will have bodies concerned specifically with Northern Ireland’s education.

It is in this context that education has developed. Parents supported the system of de facto denominational education which was inherited in 1920 and the differing educational, religious and political ideologies have, in effect, resulted in two separate school systems which mirror community divisions (Akenson, 1988). Parents make their first decision about their children’s education when they choose a school. Since then, almost all Catholic parents have sent their children to voluntary schools which are owned and governed by the Catholic church whilst almost all Protestant children have been sent to ‘controlled’ schools run by the public authorities, but usually with representatives of the Protestant Churches on their Boards of Governors (Loughran, 1987). There is slightly different management structure for Catholic and Protestant voluntary grammar schools. A further 2% attend integrated schools, where children from both traditions are educated together. It is, therefore, a complex school system which serves a population of some 1.5 million people and which has emerged for cultural, religious and historical reasons.

2.1 The Management of Schools

Parents can have a very direct impact on schools, not just as consumers but also as managers of schools. Before the mid-1980s arrangements for the management of schools were a process of historical development and the cumulative legislation in place since 1923, when the new Northern Ireland government included education among its services. The context within which they occurred, and in which education has continued, has been made clear in the background to this paper. However, parents were not included.

The Department of Government with immediate responsibility for education in Northern Ireland is the Department of Education of Northern Ireland (DENI). It has overall responsibility for schools, colleges, universities, culture and community relations between schools. Its functions normally follow from policies in England and Wales. The Education system is governed by the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order (1972) which established five Education and Library Boards. These are responsible for ensuring that there are sufficient schools and colleges to meet local needs. The Education and Library Boards equip, maintain and meet all running costs for controlled and maintained schools while maintained schools and voluntary grammar schools have their own boards. Integrated schools are the direct responsibility of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, not the Department of Education. Education and Library Boards in Northern Ireland are appointed centrally by the Head of Department of Education (NI). Although their membership includes nominated representatives of district councils, teachers, local community representatives, trade union nominees, churches and trustees of maintained schools, many of these people are themselves parents.

Two main categories of schools have to be catered for as a political as well as an educational imperative. These reflect the dual interests of Church and State in Education which has resulted in a degree of conflict in areas of management and funding. Over the years a reasonable, if uneasy, compromise was arrived at and the percentage of funding by government gradually was increased. This is now 100% for almost all schools, in return for agreement on more control in the management of grant-aided schools. It is not possible to understand the complexities of legislation, which opens up opportunities for parents to contribute, without a grasp of the nature of the school sectors as outlined below.

  1. Controlled schools, which are of different types, are owned by Education and Library Boards (ELBs). However, parents have ensured a voice in these schools which were previously owned by the three main Protestant churches who have negotiated a continuing input.
  2. Voluntary grant-maintained schools are also of different types. the majority were set up and are owned by the Roman Catholic church and religious orders. Catholic parents have been able to ensure the ethos of these schools. Although grant-maintained, voluntary grammar schools also differ in ownership, some are Roman Catholic and others have a different origin and ethos.

It is no surprise, then, to note that this complex provision reflects varying management arrangements which contain considerable anomalies, including the level of contribution to decision-making that is possible for parents.

3.1 The Legislation involving Parents in Schooling

The 1944 Education Act stated that pupils should be educated according to the wishes of their parents where this could be done in a cost effective and educationally efficient manner. Parents had little or no involvement in other school matters. Curriculum issues were the domain of the Principal and staff.

The recognition of the role of parents as a statutory right was underlined for the first time in DENI’s Report on the Management of Schools (DENI, 1979). It recommended that parents should be included in the membership of decision making structures as a significant influence. Moreover, such parents should be elected by all other parents rather than nominated. Not surprisingly, the encouragement of consultative procedures involving parents (and indeed, assistant teachers) aroused a degree of apprehension but eventually the legislation, the Education (NI) Order (1984), accepted the recommendation but kept parental representation to a minimum. Boards of Governors, on which they were to be represented were made statutory under the Boards of Governors Order (1986). The role of parents in the education of their children was identified in three ways. Firstly, the principle that children should be educated according to the wishes of their parents was enshrined; secondly, effective arrangements were put in place for the exchange of views between parents and teachers and other interested parties (which had to be overseen by Boards of Governors); finally, these Boards were set up so that parents had statutory representation where decisions affecting the education of their children were taken.

Within the last decade, however, very considerable changes affecting the whole educational system have been put in place. These changes were designed to give parents unprecedented power and to encourage their involvement in many aspects of school life. The Educational Reform (NI) Order (1989) followed government policy on the provision of a quality education for children and young people in school, including raising of standards. Whilst focusing mainly on curricular concerns, other areas of administration came under scrutiny for streamlining. Curriculum innovation included a centralised curriculum with six areas of study, each divided into subject contributions. Specified cross-curricular themes and religious education were also made statutory. Attainment targets for each Key Stage were set and assessment arrangements designed.

Although not designed to encourage parental input in the development of the curriculum parents were not forgotten. The commitment to retaining clear machinery through which the public, in general, and parents, in particular, can contribute to decision making was retained, although detailed modifications were introduced in the context of administrative rationalisation. Changes included the devolution of much responsibility for the delivery of education to Boards of Governors and the initiation of a new system of funding for schools, with authority for the day to day management of budgets delegated to boards of Governors to ensure that schools are of the highest quality. Parents’ rights to information were secured and an appeals system put in place. The Parents Charter (1991) set out clearly these rights and was distributed to every house. A further implication of the reforms is the new emphasis on the direct accountability of Boards of Governors to parents. It is now clear that the main mechanisms for accountability for school performance are located at the level of the relationship between parents and schools. The ultimate goal is, of course, an effective school, the characteristics of which have been published for the information of Board of Governors in DENI’s Governing Bodies and Effective Schools (DENI, 1989). This emphasises the relationship between home and school which should be supportive and co-operative to parents who should be encouraged to get actively involved in the life of the school. It should be noted that successive legislation amendments and DENI circulars since then have added to the increasing opportunities for the participation of parents.

4.1 Membership of Boards of Governors

On the face of it, the best way for parents to become involved in decision-making is through membership of Boards of governors. So how do parents get to be governors? Legislation entitles a number of bodies, groups and individuals to nominate or elect members to Boards of Governors. It is argued that nominees of owners or former owners (transferors, trustees or foundation governors in voluntary grammar schools) are crucial to maintaining the character of schools. Consequently, detailed arrangements for the composition of governing bodies depends on school type and on level of public funding. Nonetheless, the following groups have statutory entitlement to nominate or elect.

However, the balance between these groups varies, as can be seen in Table 1, according to type of school, pupil numbers and size of Board. Table 1 also gives the proportions for the minimum Board size for each management type and from that the relative representation of parents can be seen.

5.1 Powers accorded to Boards of Governors

With representative parents now having the opportunity to act in an equal capacity as decision makers on Boards of Governors of schools it is worth looking at what these Boards can do. The 1989 legislation, together with subsequent amendments during the last decade, has defined the responsibilities and powers of Boards of Governors. To summarise, these powers include

Parents have a right to sit on all committees and sub-committees of Boards and are, therefore, in a position to make significant contributions. Boards must ensure that the curriculum that is outlined in Education Reform Order (1989) is met. Most recently this has emphasised responsibilities towards children with special educational needs. They also contribute to decisions on whether or not to promote, replace, maintain, increase or make staff redundant. In employing teachers they may contribute to the drawing up of job descriptions and personnel specifications. They may also sit on interviewing panels, including those for the appointment of Principal, Vice-Principal and members of the Senior Management Team. As members of disciplinary committees parents may also make decisions regarding teacher behaviour.

School Boards of Governors are now very conscious of the regulations concerning the admission (and expulsion) of pupils to their schools. Parents’ preferences must be respected if admission does not breach the maximum admission numbers which are allocated by the ELBs. Where there is over-subscription, carefully designed and published selection criteria come into play. Parent Governors have a very useful contribution to make in deciding these criteria and hence may influence the composition of the pupil body. Indeed, under the terms of the Parent’s Charter (1991) parents may lodge an appeal, during which procedures adopted by Boards of Governors will be scrutinised.

The delegation of school budgeting and other financial matters has already been referred to. This has provided the opportunity for Boards of Governors to spend money ‘as it thinks fit for the purposes of the school.’ This involves, not simply the maintenance and safety of school premises and grounds, but also the payment of teachers’ salaries which account for over 70% of the budget. Parents are involved, therefore, in decisions on efficient and effective staffing arrangements, decisions on class sizes and on matters of school organisation and school upkeep.

The involvement of parents in the education of their children is facilitated, not just through representation on Boards of governors and its sub-committees but also through the right to decide a school for their child, through having access to information and through contributions at public meetings which the boards of Governors have a responsibility to organise.

Schools must now facilitate one of the earliest decisions made by parents, the decision to send their child to a particular school. As for responsibilities of the boards of Governors to parents in this matter the 1986 Order states ‘in so far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable expenditure, pupils shall be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parent(s)’. Moreover, a greater number of ‘parents’ may have all the powers already outlined. The Children (NI) Order (1995) goes on to define parent(s) as the person(s) with parental responsibility or the person who has care of the child; this may be a number of people. Not only is it their right but Boards of Governors have a duty to seek out who those who are entitled so as to include them in decisions affecting their children.

Parents, as a statutory right, have access, on request, to the Scheme of Management of the school. They must be given a free copy of a statutory annual report in which the Boards of Governors account for the discharge of its functions, including the spending of money. Moreover, Boards of Governors must arrange to hold a general meeting to which all parents of registered pupils must be invited and at which the report is discussed. Parents are entitled to raise questions / issues for consideration by Boards of Governors along with any other matters that they see fit. Boards of Governors must also ensure that parents are convened, so as to let their views be known for transmission to Department of Education School Inspectors, before an inspection. Moreover, after the inspection they must be furnished with a Report of the Inspectors’ findings and a copy of the Governors’ response. These matters may be discussed also at the AGM.

6.1 Realities: the gap between policy and practice

At first sight, this range of rights for parents would suggest a very active body of parents who advise schools as individuals, as groups and through their representative(s) on boards of Governors. The reality may be rather different.

In the first place, admissions criteria to schools, ceilings on numbers, travel regulations and so on may be such as to thwart parental choice in the school for their child. Parents of children being admitted to secondary schools are more likely to be placed in this dilemma where admissions criteria demand a top grade in the 11+ examination.

Questions arise, too, over the representative nature of Boards of Governors. Procedures in practice for the election of parent members may be such that nominees are few and often approached, of necessity, by schools. Few voting slips may be returned so that, in reality, the elected parent represents only a small number. As schools are already segregated, except in a small number of cases, political or religious matters have limited bearing.

As members of Boards the contribution of parents may be constrained. A lack of confidence or experience of committee procedures and regulations or of speaking in public may hamper participation. This may account for the reported low level of contribution in areas where parents are more likely to have completed their education at secondary level. A much higher level of activity is reported in schools where parent representatives have a third level qualification. They are more likely to find themselves across the range of sub-committees whilst in other schools those committees charged with recruiting or disciplining teachers are more likely to be dominated by the more educated members. Until parents are fully trained to operate on Boards of Governors there is a danger that their membership could remain cosmetic.

In Northern Ireland arrangements for the training of parent governors, who have responsibility for very complex issues, have been put in place. Governor training, in general, is a priority to enable governors to carry out their duties, including the delivery of the curriculum, establishing criteria for admissions, following guidelines for expulsions, recruitment and the financial management of the delegated budget. The training programme is organised by the Education and Library Boards in collaboration with the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools, although it is the responsibility of individual Boards of Governors to ensure that there is a sufficient level and range of experience among their members. Training is organised at weekends and evenings to facilitate those who cannot attend daytime sessions. In 1998/99 training was provided in recruitment procedures and requirements, financial management, health and safety and child protection (Belfast Education and Library Board, 1998). Nonetheless, there is a long way to go to ensure real equality of opportunity.

The body of parents also contributes in a direct way to the education of their children. Parent-Teacher Associations, which have been growing in number and in activity in Northern Ireland in recent years, are a valuable forum for discussing educational issues, fund-raising and social events. As yet, these associations are more common in primary schools. It is interesting, although not surprising, that far more parents will attend such meetings than those organised as statutory meetings on behalf of Boards of Governors.

Access to information has become a right for parents, as already observed and Boards of Governors are required to arrange meetings to give information and to elicit opinions for discussion. However, more and more Boards are abandoning such meetings, and instead, mailing reports, usually glowing, to parents. The option to write requesting a meeting is given to them, a procedure unlikely to result in one being called. Information on Department of Education inspections is similarly presented (although the full report is available on request from the Department of Education). Where meetings are held low attendances are reported, except in schools which are driven by parental pressure for examination excellence at all levels.

Things may improve particularly in primary schools where training is now being organised which may bolster the confidence of parents to actively contribute to the whole range of issues concerning their children’s education. Growing partnerships of parents with teachers, especially in the development of literacy skills, have been shown to be productive for parents as well as children and teachers. In some cases the growth in confidence has resulted in parents taking on voluntary classroom assistant roles in a range of areas. As for teachers who in the early stages of partnership demonstrated hesitance, even resistance, to parent participation, reports suggest that many have begun to see the advantages.

7.1 Concluding Remarks

The findings that have been produced in this paper show that in the last quarter of the twentieth century in Northern Ireland the role of parents in the education of their children has been transformed. In the last decade, moreover, the growth of possibilities for participation has accelerated and many schools and parents have grasped the opportunities. Yet, the path towards parental involvement in the education process in Northern Ireland has been long and tedious and, in practice and recognition of the worth of parental contribution, is not universal. The concept of partnership has underpinned much of recent thinking concerning schooling, not only in curriculum matters but also in the management of schools, at a time when far more significant powers have been vested in them. In line with this thinking, but also for political reasons, the 1990s was a decade when the locus of accountability moved to the school - parent relationship. Today, then, parents in Northern Ireland are involved in decisions on a wide range of matters concerning their children’s schooling. Their contribution is not solely at the level of the classroom but has shifted to the management of the school and to arenas where policy is debated and planned.

This paper has also shown that a gap exists in Northern Ireland between policy and practice. At one level there are structural hurdles yet to be overcome. However, the increased expectations of citizens and a growing awareness of the significance of their contributions suggests that these difficulties will be addressed. Bolstering the confidence of many parents and building the skills that will enable them to maximise the opportunities that are opening up for all may be more difficult. As the new century begins, then, a lot of work still needs to be done. The challenge is to unlock that potential of partnership so that the gap between policy and practice disappears.

Margaret C Keane

Frank Magee


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