Scotland - Consulting on a Wider Scale - The Experience of South Ayrshire Parents’ Consultative Group

Throughout Scotland, the School Board system is the formal partnership between the education authorities and parents. School Boards were established under the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988 and are protected by legislation such as: -

Under this legislation, the Education Authorities must establish a School Board for each primary, secondary and special school (unless insufficient parents come forward when elections are held to fill all parental vacancies on the Board). The Education Authority must also provide whatever assistance is necessary to enable School Boards to carry out their responsibilities and perform effectively.

The Head Teacher acts as the Principal Advisor to the Board under the Act and can give effect to any competent decision of the School Board.

In South Ayrshire, the present structure of the School Board system can, to some parents, be limiting in that the scope of duties and responsibilities is laid down by legislation within certain parameters and these cannot be broadened. Furthermore, their remit is normally limited to one establishment in one part of the South Ayrshire Council area. Indeed not all parents can become School Board members and a number do not necessarily wish the potential 'trauma' of public election. Furthermore, there are a number of parents who consider that even when School Boards exist, there is no guarantee that full parental participation is achieved.

The South Ayrshire Parents' Consultative Group is different. Thanks to the wish of the elected members and the directorate of South Ayrshire Council to have a continuing high level of parent partnership, the group is in the unique position of being an informal ear and 'think tank' covering the whole of South Ayrshire, and thinking globally, rather than in parochial terms as in the case of individual School Boards.

The Consultative Group was formed in August 1995. The original membership at that time was only 6 parents! The previous Strathclyde Region Parents' Consultative Group on the Curriculum was formed by the then Regional Director of Education, as an informal 'sounding board' for the education department to assess parental views and concerns and to get feed-back on various matters. With support and backing from South Ayrshire Council, both elected members and the directorate and officers of the Educational Services Department, SApcg gained both in number and in representation of areas throughout South Ayrshire. The membership varies, at present being around seventy, and comes from rural communities, coastal communities, urban and inland, virtually the whole spectrum of South Ayrshire.

The South Ayrshire Parents' Consultative Group is: -

The main objectives of the group are: -

To allow all parents within South Ayrshire the opportunity of meeting and discussing any matters in respect of education in South Ayrshire and to encourage continuing dialogue between all parties, i.e.

To allow and encourage dialogue between all parents and the elected members, directors and officers of South Ayrshire Council;

To provide an informal means of communication between parents in South Ayrshire and any public or private body, particularly South Ayrshire Council;

To provide a 'sounding board' for South Ayrshire Council in its deliberations and when forming policies;

To provide a platform for South Ayrshire Council and other bodies to address and make presentations to the parents of South Ayrshire

To stimulate debate between the local authority and the parent body within South Ayrshire

Achieving Objectives

The Group is able to achieve these objectives in the following ways: -

By holding regular meetings open to all parent members to allow full discussions on education relating to all areas within South Ayrshire;

By inviting to all regular meetings such elected members and officers as required to ensure full and meaningful discussion and dialogue;

By arranging for regular presentations to be given by officers of South Ayrshire Council or other bodies on any identified subject matter;

By arranging Conference Platforms and Workshops at regular intervals allowing all parents within South Ayrshire to actively consult, participate and have dialogue with service providers and to have presentations given by various specialist parties on any given subject;

By arranging evening or weekend "Roadshows" taking identified aspects of concern or interest to all areas within South Ayrshire, whether rural, village, coastal or urban, and ensuring that the scope of subjects is particularly aimed at the areas being visited;

By being available as a Group to any parent within South Ayrshire who wishes to consult with the Group or to have any queries or concerns addressed by South Ayrshire Council or other body.

As mentioned above, whilst the South Ayrshire Parents' Consultative Group is the informal parent partner of South Ayrshire Council Educational Services Department, it remains the School Board system which is the formal partnership.

However, not all parents like the 'limelight' or formality of the School Board system and would prefer to be part of an organisation, which is perhaps less intimidating and more informal than the School Board system. This very circumstance was recognised by the then Director of Education for Strathclyde Regional Council and the Parents' Consultative Group on the Curriculum was formed.

The group is made up of fairly ordinary parents, from all backgrounds and ways of life, and meets informally at regular intervals during school term at different locations to suit all members regardless of where they live.

The traditions of the original PCGC are maintained by remaining a 'sounding board' for South Ayrshire Council, and unlike the school board system, the remit is not restricted to individual schools and establishments but covers the whole of South Ayrshire. Again, unlike the school board system, which is the formal link between the Council and the parents, there are no legislative parameters within which the group operates.

During meetings, presentations are given by various sources, mainly South Ayrshire Council, on such subjects as bullying, early intervention, quality in education, etc., and still to come are parenting skills, careers and adult education and parent communications. The group has also organised two full day conferences, the first on "Quality in Education" which was one of the first conferences nationally to have workshops for pupils, HMI, Head Teachers and the Education Authority at the same time and under the same roof.

The next conference was "Focus on Youth" and 'Talkshops' were organised, being run by Strathclyde Police, South Ayrshire Community Services, the Children's Panel, Educational Services (youth-led on the subject of drugs) and Personal and Social Education. In order to get out and to meet parents local 'Roadshows' have started whereby members of the group visit different areas and hold short mid-week evening meetings covering subjects which are individual or of concern to the areas being visited. The subjects have been selected from a list made up by public input and include School Uniforms, the Transition from Primary School to Secondary School, and School Security. Invited to such Roadshows were parents from throughout South Ayrshire as well as local elected members, head teachers and staff from the secondary schools and feeder primaries, along with officers of South Ayrshire Council.

In the summer of 1997, South Ayrshire Council invited representatives of the group along to meet with European delegates as part of their Arion visit, representing Germany, Spain, Finland, Norway, Poland, Hungary and Belgium and this allowed the establishment of informal European links with parents and professionals. From this start, German colleagues approached the Steering Committee of the group and sought their agreement to participate in an EU-China Link, this link being between China, Germany and Scotland. The Committee was delighted to formally apply, and an application, titled "Parent Partnership in Education" was submitted in November 1997. In January 1998, the EU-China Local Authority Linking Programme office in Torino, Italy confirmed that it had been approved. As a consequence of this, the South Ayrshire Parents' Consultative Group and the German parents' group Kreiselternrat Celle visited Chuzhou City. At the conclusion of this link, a full Paper was prepared and circulated to all parties and the European Commission illustrating the different methods of education adopted by each partner and outlining the means of parent partnership.

The South Ayrshire Parents' Consultative Group has only two office bearers at present, namely the Chairman (presently Fraser Cook) and the Clerk (presently Rhona Beatson). The office bearers are advised and assisted by the Steering Committee, which comprises the two office bearers and three further parent members (presently Joanne Doolan, Denise Hogarth and Brian Thomson).

As part of the Council's quest for full and meaningful parent partnership, it recognised that the two existing formats - the School Boards and the Parents' Consultative Group - whilst being effective in their own remits, could be even more effective if a meaningful amalgamation could be achieved. From this scenario evolved the School Boards' Forum and Consultative Group, which meets regularly once a term and comprises the Chair (or other representative) from each School Board and the Steering Committee of the South Ayrshire Parents' Consultative Group. There are two such Forums, one covering the Secondary School Boards, the other the Primary School Boards, including Special Schools. The South Ayrshire Parents' Consultative Group Steering Committee are members of, and attend, both sector meetings each term.

As part of this extended remit, and in order to assist South Ayrshire Council in its endeavours to seek parental views as a Health Check, the Joint Committee of School Boards Forum and Parents Consultative Group was formed, comprising School Board Chairs for Secondary and Primary schools in addition to the Steering Committee of the Parents’ Consultative Group. The purpose of this exercise is to prepare and issue to all parents throughout South Ayrshire a Questionnaire from which parental views can be sought. The format for this Questionnaire is based on the HMI reporting system, and the Questionnaire is called quite simply. How good is Your School? The Questionnaire will be carried out independently by the Joint Committee, the results being compiled by that Committee and published to all parties, including the parents, by various means, including using the local press. From the responses given, it is likely that agenda subjects for future School Board and South Ayrshire Parents Consultative Group meetings will emerge.

The benefit is that not only will local and individual assessments become available but the views of the parents will be able to be compared not only within each town or country area, but throughout the whole of South Ayrshire. Furthermore, in the event of future assessments by school inspectors the schools will have parental views available, compiled and collated independently by parents outwith the education authority, and this will allow a more accurate picture to be available to Head Teachers and Senior Management Teams.

The above illustrates some example of how South Ayrshire are utilising the services of the Parents’ Consultative Group to give a full and meaningful parent partnership in education, the results of which, due to the dynamic and pro-active nature of the organisation, has given, and will give, results of such partnership in local, national and international terms.

Fraser Cook