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Schools: Parent Governors

Volume 771: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what considerations have led them to recommend the abolition of the statutory position of parent governors on school and academy governing boards.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as having been for the past 40 years first a parent governor and subsequently a governor of state schools.

My Lords, we are not abolishing parent governors. I pay tribute to the many thousands of parents who play this vital role, and I expect that many parents will continue to do so. Boards must be free to appoint parents for their skills and expertise to govern in the interests of all pupils. For the first time, all academies will in future be required to engage meaningfully with and listen to all parents.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I recognise that the Government are anxious to establish skills-based governing boards, but does he not recognise how incongruous it is that as the Government are to some extent discouraging parents from sitting on the governing boards of ordinary schools, they are at the same time extolling the role of parents in setting up free schools? Does he not also recognise that many parents like myself started as parent governors and learned through that experience and training the skills of critical analysis and leadership, which allowed them to provide leadership within their communities, often going on later to stand as councillors and perhaps even Members of Parliament?

I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s support on parental engagement in free schools. I agree with the point she has made about people being able to develop their skills. We very much want parents to be involved, and school governing bodies provide an opportunity for them to acquire new skills. That is one of the reasons why many employers encourage their staff, particularly their younger staff, to sit on the governing bodies of schools and academies, and indeed we have an active programme with employers to develop this.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that whatever skills parent governors may or may not have, they play a crucial role in keeping parental opinion feeding into the governing body and helping to gain parental support for the school?

I agree entirely with that point. Parent governors play an important role in parental opinion, but we really want to engage with parents across a wider front so that we can have a much broader set of parental opinion. That is why we are bringing in these proposals that academies do that.

My Lords, building on the point made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, the implication of the way that the Government are framing this is that being a parent is somehow not enough to qualify to take part in the governance of a school at which one’s child might be a student. Does the Minister agree that, although many parents have many skills, the primary reason for having them on governing bodies is that they are parents? Would it not be better to allow that to stand as the main reason for having them there?

I agree that we should encourage parents to stand for governing bodies, but we have been very clear over the past few years about focusing governance on skills. It is a skills-based function and that is why we have continually focused on skills. Anyone sitting on a governing body must have those skills, or certainly be able to develop them in relatively short order.

My Lords, the Government have announced that academies will be required to have parent councils. I think that this is a good idea, but if it is, why was it not included in the White Paper? The truth is that it was rushed out in response to a reaction to the White Paper about the marginalisation of parents from school governance. Is it not the case that the White Paper on the forced academisation of schools is actually the back-door privatisation of the education system, and that the Government are not willing to tolerate opposition from parents or anyone who opposes that ideology?

Actually, it was made absolutely clear in the White Paper that we would create a new expectation that every academy would put in place meaningful arrangements for engagement with all parents. We do not want to be prescriptive about the precise nature of that engagement, but of course a parent council may well be a good way of doing that. So far as privatisation is concerned, it is interesting to note that anyone involved in an academy or in a governance relationship with an academy cannot profit from their arrangement in that, whereas of course that is possible in a local authority-maintained school.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that I wrote to him on 12 February following a multi-academy trust abolishing a governing body. In his reply, he said, as he has said here, that academies should make and have in place meaningful and effective arrangements for engaging and listening to the views of parents. How will that happen, and will that be statutory? We do not want parents to think that government policy, in terms of parental involvement in their child’s school, is that parents should be seen but not heard.

I agree entirely. We want parents to be much more engaged in their child’s education. That is absolutely essential, as I think we all agree. As I say, we will put in place a clear expectation on academies to do that.

It is a consistent system. We feel that the academy system is the best way to give freedom to the front line and to enable heads to recruit, train, retain, develop and deploy staff. Many freedoms and other benefits come from being an academy and part of a family of schools in a multi-academy trust.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how many vacancies exist for school governors? It is my experience that many schools are having real difficulty in recruiting governors.

I cannot give the noble Lord an exact figure but he is absolutely right that we are always looking for school governors. We have an active programme with a school governors’ one-stop shop, and for inspiring and recruiting future governors. I have already referred to the active programme with employers on recruiting governors. We also have the very successful Academy Ambassadors programme, which has recruited 200 pro bono people from the professions, business and charities to sit on the boards of multi-academy trusts.