As a parent, I don’t want more new powers
I don’t generally write about education, but this is something I feel quite strongly about.
This week, Labour leader Ed Miliband launched a series of plans for public service reform, the most eye-catching of which promised parents the ability to call in “a specialist team” to sort out their school if they believe it’s not doing well enough. This is closely related to the issue that’s been occupying so much of my time for the last few months, but although I’ve been working hard to get parents’ views taken into account in that context, this latest initiative is not the answer.
First, the basics – schools are inspected by Ofsted on a regular basis, those inspections are more frequent for schools with poorer ratings, and they include consideration of parent feedback. If there’s a danger that this regime would fail to identify and address problems in a timely manner, the obvious first step is to review and revise the inspection process. To offer this “parent protest” as a sticking plaster to cover for any inadequacies of the expensive and time-consuming inspection process already in place would simply compound the error.
There are situations in which no system of inspections will respond with the speed that would be expected, but that’s already covered by Ofsted’s complaints process, which deals with “qualifying complaints” in a manner appropriate to the seriousness of the complaint, from instructing the school to take action to initiating an immediate inspection. This is in addition to all the normal channels of communication and representation. No parent should ever feel that they have no say in the school’s direction and performance.
Yet the disenfranchisement of parents, to say nothing of governors, is exactly what is likely to happen if Miliband’s proposals are ever enacted. Without any obvious requirement for evidence, a noisy minority of parents with grudges would be able to call in people with no accountability to the school or the people who use it, with the power to tell the school what to do, and even to remove headteachers. No doubt there will be soothing words and assurances that this is an extreme option, but if it’s there it will be used, and mission creep makes it likely that even more powers and responsibilities will be added in time.
A “Moaner’s Charter” may empower those who are inclined to make a fuss, or at least make them feel important, but it does the exact opposite for the majority who are happy with the school, allowing their views to be ignored and the school directed without their input. It is presented as sharing power, and that may be the intention, but the net effect is more centralisation. More inspections, more oversight, more triggers, more unaccountable bureaucrats with the power to come into a school and act in the way they see fit. This is the last thing we want.
Academy legislation under the current government has already wrecked the inspection process by introducing an expectation (presented as compulsion by DfE brokers) that schools in special measures will become academies. Now an Ofsted visit is explicitly not just an independent assessment of the school, but also a lurking threat: Do badly in just one inspection, and the school will be punished. This has killed any possibility of a truly constructive relationship with inspectors. To extend the same sense of jeopardy to every interaction with parents would only make matters worse.
We all want schools to be as good as they can possibly be. This is best achieved through co-operation between the various groups with an interest in a school’s success, not the creation of an additional adversarial structure which encourages parents to foment revolution over their child’s struggles with Maths. I do not want my children to attend a school run by teachers who are devoting all their time to keeping a few obstreperous parents happy in case they make a complaint.
If Miliband really wants to share power, he should drop this gimmicky tinkering and promise real change. Put an end to all forced academisation, restrict the appointment of Interim Executive Boards to cases of outright neglect or dereliction of duty, and promote the school governors as the seat of control and local accountability for all schools. This is how power is truly and productively shared – by getting parents fully engaged in school governance, not installing a new Sword of Damocles in every school and promising scissors for all.