Parents in the Driving Seat?
Parents' role in setting up new secondary schools
By Hazel Pennell and Anne West
Centre for Educational Research
Department of Social Policy
London School of Economics and Political Science
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In October 2005, the Research and Information on State Education Trust (RISE), with funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, commissioned the Centre for Educational Research at the London School of Economics and Political Science to undertake a research project on the role of parents in the planning and setting up of new secondary schools.
The context for the research was the White Paper, ‘Higher Standards, Better Schools for All’, in which a commitment was made by the government ‘to put parents in the driving seat’ (Department for Education and Skills (DfES), 2005a, p1) and to give parents the right to ask for a new school. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 enacted this commitment and ‘places an explicit duty on local authorities for the first time to respond formally to parents seeking changes to the provision of schools in their area including new schools’ (DfES, 2006a, p.1)
The main aim of the research was to investigate the extent to which parents were able to influence the types of new schools set up prior to the enactment of the legislation. The overarching research questions it sought to address were: to what extent are parents’ wishes, either in favour of, or against a new school, taken on board when new schools are proposed? To what extent are parents involved in the planning and setting up of academies or other new schools? To what extent are parents successful in meeting their aims and objectives in terms of planning and setting up new schools?
Fifteen parent campaigns were included in the research: seven aimed to obtain new schools and eight to prevent new schools being set up. Semi-structured interviews were carried out with 26 members of the campaigns. The vast majority of the interviewees (23) were parents (17 were mothers) and at least one parent was interviewed from each campaign. Interviews were also conducted with four local authority officials who had been involved in campaigns, two academy sponsors and a DfES official. As there is no information available on the total number of campaigns or the types of campaigns, it is not possible to say to what extent the campaigns can be considered to be representative of campaigns that have taken place. Therefore any generalisations need to be made with caution.
Campaigns for new schools
• In six out of the seven campaigns for a new school, the reason for starting the campaign was a perceived need for more secondary school places in the locality. Parents wanted their children to be able to move on to secondary school with their friends from primary school and actively sought, or assumed, that the new school would be a community school. Two campaigns were supporting local authority proposals for new schools.
• In the other case the campaigners were seeking to find a way for a school in the independent sector, that offered a different philosophy of education, to enter the state sector as they wanted more children to be able to benefit from the education on offer.
Campaigns against new schools
• Campaigners against the eight new schools were, in the main, parents whose children were attending schools threatened with closure. The planned closures were associated with proposals for new schools. In seven out of the eight campaigns, the proposed new school was an academy. This was nearly always of concern to campaigners, particularly where a faith-based academy was proposed to replace a community school.
• In a minority of cases, the site of the new school, as opposed to a new school per se, was the main issue for campaigners.
• The interviews with local authority officials and campaigners revealed, at times, sharp differences of opinion in relation to the performance of schools threatened with closure.
Who campaigners sought to influence and how
• In most cases, campaigns for or against a new school sought to convince local authorities of the merits of their case. Contact with other campaigns was made in a number of cases to obtain advice, help and share information. In several cases joint campaigning activities took place.
• A majority of the campaigns for new schools reported contacting central government, primarily the DfES; the campaign for a school with a different philosophy of education also formed a parliamentary lobbying group.
• Several campaigns against new schools put forward alternative plans that would have enabled the schools facing closure to stay open. A number had contemplated making legal challenges against academies on various grounds
Issues, barriers and problems
• Interviewees in all but one campaign reported difficulties in accessing information. Those campaigning for new schools described instances where the information was not available or not available in the right form; in some cases, the local authority had not assisted with the provision of information.
• Those campaigning against new schools found it particularly difficult to obtain information about proposals for academies; around half of the interviewees mentioned using the Freedom of Information Act to seek to obtain relevant material.
• Lack of expertise was a problem faced by some interviewees, particularly those campaigning for a new school. In a number of cases, interviewees experienced difficulties in understanding the local government system and its procedures.
• Campaigners tended to perceive government policy, particularly in relation to the academies programme, as a major obstacle given that they wanted either to obtain or to retain community schools. Concerns raised in relation to academies included: the circumstances that led to the proposal; the consultation process; the way that academies were approved; and more specifically, the replacement of a community school by a faith-based academy.
• All seven campaigns for new schools had faced difficulties in relation to school sites. Land scarcity and high land costs were identified as problems. Even where a feasible site had been identified, local priorities could determine that it was used for a purpose other than a school, as occurred in one case. Local authority and DfES officials acknowledged that securing suitable sites for new schools was a major problem.
Outcomes of the campaigns
• Overall six of the 15 campaigns were successful in that a new school appeared to have been agreed (four cases out of seven) or closure proposals had not been pursued (two cases out of eight). The remainder were either not successful (4) or remained unresolved (5) at the end of the autumn of 2006.
• Three of the four successful campaigns for new schools had the support of the local authority. In two cases the local authority had proposed the new school; in the other, the campaign may have influenced the location and the time frame for the new school but probably not a school per se. The other campaign where proposals for a new school were agreed in principle, was the school with a different philosophy of education.
• The two successful campaigns against new schools were parent-led but also had the involvement of school staff and teacher unions.
In terms of the three key research questions we set out to answer, we found that: first, in some cases, parents’ wishes, either in favour of or opposed to the setting up of a new school, were taken on board; second, parents’ involvement in the planning and setting up of new schools was limited, particularly in relation to academies; and third, there was variation in the extent to which campaigners were successful in meeting their aims and objectives, although amongst our sample the campaigns for a new school appeared to be more successful than those against.
There are a number of implications for policy arising from this research. Whilst it is not possible to generalise in terms of the outcomes of the campaigns, in terms of the processes involved there are some implications for policy. These related to the type of schools parents wanted; the process of setting up academies; the availability of information; securing sites; and improving links with parents.
Type of school
Nearly all of the campaigns for a new school wanted or assumed that the new school would be a community not a religious school. There was a concern that faith-based schools were replacing non-faith schools. There is a case for a debate on this issue, given that choice for parents who want a school without a particular religious focus/sponsor could diminish.
There was concern amongst campaigners about the process of setting up academies and, in particular the lack of information on the proposals; the speed of the process; the limited nature of the consultation; and what was perceived as the lack of democratic accountability regarding academies, particularly in relation to school governance. There is a case for reviewing these procedures to bring them into line with the establishment of other types of schools.
Availability of information
Information for parents on how to campaign for and against new schools could be provided. More support could be offered by the DfES, as is currently provided in the case of competitions for new schools. Councils vary in the extent to which they make documents (agendas, minutes, reports etc.) available via their websites: it is important that this information is provided by all local authorities. It may be helpful for an individual within a local authority to be designated to assist parents with accessing information and to provide guidance about council procedures.
Securing suitable sites for new schools was identified as a major problem by the DfES and local authorities; this is an issue that needs to be addressed by central and local government.
Improving links with parents
There is a case for parents whose children’s schools are threatened with closure to be more constructively engaged in discussions about the future of the school at an earlier stage.
Parent campaigners against the closure of schools were concerned that they did not receive information about proposed closures in good time and that their views were not seriously listened to. More generally, the purposes of consultation regarding new schools – including the role of parents in the consultation – and the processes involved, should be made clearer to parents. The consultation processes themselves need to be carried out openly at a formative stage.