Parent Governor Representatives
- a bigger say for parents?
By Mike Johnson, Centre for Successful Schools, Keele University
and Keith Pocklington, CREATE Consultants
Download the full report as a PDF document
The School Standards and Framework Act (1998) required local authorities to have between two and five representatives of parents on their education committees by June 2000. These Parent Governor Representatives (PGRs), were to be drawn from among local parent governors and elected by parent governors and have full voting rights on all local authority functions related to education.
When PGRs had been in post for around two years Research and Information on State Education (RISE) commissioned research with the support of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. The research aim was to explore the role of parent governor representatives in the light of the Government’s intention that they should serve as a voice for parents. The study aimed to answer the question: To what extent does the existence of a structure for participation in policy making mean that participation actually occurs, and additionally, that it has some effect? The research included a questionnaire to current and previous PGRs, Chief Education Officers and councillors with a brief for education. There were also interviews of PGRs, education officers and elected members.
- PGRs identified three main limitations on their work.
- The shortfall of time, given the scope and complexity of the role.
- Lack of respect shown toward them by LEA officials and especially elected members, coupled with a lack of interest in their work and the absence of support.
- Difficulties of communication, more especially with parents.
- Few PGRs were satisfied with the support they had received from their local authority. One said ‘It would appear to me that PGRs, like governors, were an invention by Government and forced on the local authority. We are there because they say so, and are a necessary evil to be tolerated.'
- External support measures included central government support, in the form of help and guidance from both the DfES and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). A majority of PGRs reported finding the DfES publications and conferences for PGRs broadly helpful. However reservations were voiced about the DfES’ failure to persevere with the programme of national conferences. It was widely felt that DfES could have done more to help shape a more favourable climate toward parent governor representatives at local government level.
- The NFER provides a dedicated Email system (PGRNET-list), website and forum for discussion, and a newsletter The PGRs valued the website and newsletters. The PGRNET-list and discussion forum were seen as broadly helpful.
- The DfES and NFER also have overseen the development of PGR links at regional and national levels. The regional meetings throughout have struggled to gain the support of PGRs, and their future seems in doubt. At the national level, the PGR Network Committee (NPGRC) was widely considered a good idea in principle, but constrained by the perceived attitude within the DfES of wanting to continue to exert control over the service.
- Most PGRs said the financial support available was inadequate. Less than a third of current PGRs reported having been reimbursed for expenses. Indeed, some had found it difficult to claim expenses.
- 82% of PGRs overall reported finding it very difficult to gain access to parents. They believed that most parents were unaware of their presence. One ex PGR said 'There seemed to be no validity to the role. Parents were not adequately informed on the potential of their PGR and no one locally seemed to want to develop communications between PGRs and . . .'
- Less than a third of PGRs perceived that the present system had been effective, even at the local level, in representing the views of parents. At regional level, the general feeling was that they had not been at all effective in representing parents. There was a strong view among PGRs that the creation of a national representative body would substantially improve matters and enable them to afford parents a better say on educational matters.
- Most CEO and elected members supported the representation of parents on local committees but less than a quarter of CEOs and less than half the elected members considered that PGRs were effective in representing the views of parents within their local authority.
- Very few CEOs and elected members felt that the work of PGRs had developed significantly over the first three or so years of their existence. They further perceived that PGRs often encountered quite serious difficulty in carrying out the duties expected of them.
- A particular difficulty with the PGR system of parental representation has been the recruitment and retention of PGRs. More than half of the CEOs reported having experienced difficulties in recruitment despite prolonged efforts.
- Almost nine out of ten CEOs and elected members considered it important for PGRs to receive a suitable induction and training in order for them to be able to undertake their role effectively. In spite of this, many CEOs and elected members said that, for the most part, PGRs had not been offered any dedicated induction or training specific to their work, but had received the same induction as that provided for any newly elected members. In a number of cases no induction or training had been provided at all. This was confirmed by the PGRs.
Not all bad news
72% of current PGRs said they found the work rewarding. The greatest reward derived from a sense of representing parents in the council chamber and being involved in shaping the future education service. In spite of the many difficulties identified above, PGRs themselves remained optimistic about the capacity of the PGR system to represent the views of parents in the local community.
The report includes many examples of current ‘good practice’ for ensuring their effectiveness, and a detailed summary of work in two LEAs showing good practice.
Key issues and proposals
The researchers identify 14 key issues and make suggestions for improvements.
- Although there is much to value, the support mechanisms provided by the DfES and NFER need to be rethought in order to become more effective
- Too many CEOs and elected members do not have faith in the system of parent governor representatives. DfES should be more explicit about the way in which the PGR system of parental representation is to be managed at local level.
- The National Network Committee (NPGRC) would benefit from further development which appears now to be happening. The DfES needs to encourage the Committee’s membership to mature into the role, to allow them to become more autonomous and assume greater responsibility. The status of the Committee chair would benefit from some enhancement, including extending the term of office beyond the present single year, during which time it is all the chair can do to come to terms with the nature of the role.
- The term of office for PGRs is set at a minimum of two years and a maximum of four years. For a good many PGRs it can take the best part of two years before they feel they have come to terms with what the role entails and are in a position to be effective. PGRs should have a minimum term of office of not less than three years, and ideally, four years.
- While the legal requirement is for a minimum of two PGRs, the reality is that some LEAs have experienced great difficulty in making two appointments. Nevertheless LEAs should be strongly encouraged to make even greater effort to appoint the minimum of two PGRs, preferably more. The great disadvantage with a single PGR is that unless he or she is quite exceptional, they may well remain isolated and ineffective.
- Recruitment can be problematic. Local authority officers and officials, the DfES and others should do all in their power to make the role of a PGR attractive and one which carries status and prestige within the local community, in the hope that elections can become more of a contest between strong candidates. The full weight of the government and DfES needs to be directed to encouraging parent governors of high quality to come forward.
- There is a pressing need for a planned programme of induction and possible further training, e.g. the skills of public speaking, negotiating skills, the skills of strategic thinking and planning. The need for a common standard of induction has been recognised within the DfES, and arrangements are in hand for an induction package to be developed and trialled. There still may be a need for formal skills training along the lines outlined above. Induction and training should be of a common high standard in all parts of the country, and monitored. It should be made clear whose responsibility it is to deliver it. Where high quality induction has been provided, PGRs’ morale is high and they feel prepared to fulfil their role.
- There is no statutory entitlement to support for PGRs only generalised statements but no structures or mechanisms for delivery in any of the statutes. A guaranteed national entitlement of support should be given to PGRs explicitly stating by whom and when it will be given - in all those areas where there is currently a vague generalisation about what they might expect. This would, of course, entail central government in further modifying - and strengthening - the relevant legislation and also making available additional funding which is earmarked for use in supporting PGR services.
- All too often elected members’ first introduction to PGRs is when they attend their first formal committee meeting - a daunting experience in its own right, according to many PGRs. Local authorities and CEOs need to ensure that councillors are informed about the existence of PGRs and what they are there for, the importance attached to them/their work by the CEO and other senior LEA officers, the DfES, etc., as well as being given a personalised introduction. CEOs also have a responsibility for securing the commitment to PGRs of the Cabinet member for Education, whose active support for the PGRs, both direct and indirect, is crucial. The evidence from the research further suggests that the attitude and stance of the CEOs themselves towards PGRs is crucial, and that they have a critical part to play in shaping a positive climate within which PGRs can flourish.
- PGRs have to engage with elected members by definition, and the evidence of the research is that this can be where difficulties arise which may threaten to undermine PGR confidence and morale. Local authorities should give serious consideration to introducing some form of ‘buddying‘ arrangement, whereby every PGR is linked with an elected member, who undertakes to act as his or her ally and facilitator in the council chamber,
- Some PGRs have been assigned a member of staff within the LEA typically, a senior member of the Governor Support team to serve as their first point of contact, offering guidance and assistance. All PGRs should have a member of staff within the LEA assigned to serve as their first port of call.
- Central government legislation was widely regarded among the PGRs as being too loose in respect of what was required of local authorities. PGRs who are currently struggling to secure even the most basic forms of support would dearly love to be able to refer to guarantees enshrined within the legislation as they press their local authority for better backing and support. There are sensitivities within central government concerning its relations with local government. However, there would seem a compelling need for some basic consistency in practice across local authorities. Certainly, those at the sharp end recognise this as very necessary.
- To fulfil the duties of a PGR effectively takes more time than most people are able to give on a volunteer basis. By definition they are also parent governors, which is a large task in itself, and many are in full-time or part-time employment. Committee meetings invariably take place during the working day, thus posing problems of attendance, especially as there is no obligation on employers to provide time off work, unlike as for members. Care needs to be taken not to overload them, which may entail asking hard questions about where else, apart from Overview and Scrutiny and the Admissions Forum, the PGR contribution really could be valuable.
- Parent governor representatives are not universally seen as being effective representatives of parents because they have no formal means of gaining access to parents’ views. There is no structure for so doing. There is nothing in DfES policy that makes explicit what LEAs must or even should do to facilitate this process. As the Government's intention for PGRs is parental representation, the constituency of parents they are to represent should be clearly defined. Effective structures need then to be put in place for ensuring that PGRs are able to reach those whom they represent. Similar structures also must be in place for PGRs to report back to their constituents. An important message of the research is that PGRs should channel their energy and efforts into parent governors, seeing them as the critical link between themselves and parents. Potentially, this offers a realistic means of PGRs getting a feel for what parents think about particular aspects of educational provision or policy, or a sense of any concerns they may have. The basics of communicating with parent governors and parents can be approached via such means as utilising the existing channels for governors and the free council circulars which go out to all households as a number of PGRs indeed were doing. Other possible avenues which could be explored, such as making greater use of the local media, e.g. TV and radio, or the press. PGRs might also look to establish a number of parent forums, these particular parents serving to represent the wider body of parents.
The researchers conclude
There is firm evidence of practice getting better in a good many local authorities - as is evident from the differences in the respective experiences of the current and former PGRs. But in spite of the undoubted strides taken, there is still a long way to go in a great many local authorities. There is much still needing to be done if parent governor representatives are to become an established feature, and fulfilling the role envisaged for them by central government.
In response to the question posed, the research leads us to conclude that structure alone - that is, the PGRs - can only achieve so much. The time that PGRs are able to devote to the role is an important determinant of what can be achieved, as is the calibre of the individual post holder. As for whether the creation of PGRs has brought about more by way of parental participation in education policy making, and to some effect, it depends what is meant by ‘parental participation’. There was very little to suggest that substantial numbers of parents have a strong desire to be directly involved in education policy making at local authority level and are so involved. For the most part, parents’ concerns reside in their own children and the schooling they receive. On the other hand, in those local authorities where the parent governor representatives have been effective, or reasonably so, the views of parents are now being introduced into the council chamber and being taken note of. Furthermore, there is now an increased awareness and a preparedness on the part of LEA officers and elected members to consider how policy proposals might play out with parents.
However all the evidence to date suggests that achievements are in essence relatively modest. To a large degree this is a reflection of the range and severity of the difficulties which many PGRs have faced.
The role is both necessary and worth doing. Indeed, if anything it is likely to become even more crucial given developments already in train in central government thinking. In a speech earlier this year, as part of the government’s ‘Big Conversation’ initiative, David Blunkett addressed the issue facing central government of the need to connect politics and people, as part of helping to fashion healthy, vibrant local communities.
He spoke of the importance which the Labour government attached to building a meaningful partnership with parents, of the significance of ‘building from the bottom up’ of the need to empower citizens so that they might assume greater responsibility for their lives and communities. In the form of the parent governor representative, the government arguably has a potentially very powerful force for helping to transform rhetoric into a reality. However, PGRs need to be supported in this truly supported, with the funding and other resources needed to carry out this task, together with the active ‘climate shaping’ that is both symbolically significant and necessary. At present it is hard to avoid concluding other than that PGRs are being sent into battle with one arm strapped behind their backs.