Schools and the rise of parent power

David Cameron and his wife SamanthaThe likelihood of a surge of parent power in British schooling under a future Conservative-led government has met with an ambivalent response in the current affairs magazine, Prospect. The possible adoption of the “Swedish model” allowing businesses, charities and parents to open schools funded by the government makes Prospect deputy editor James Crabtree slightly nervous.

In an essay entitled, “They run your school, your mum and dad”, Crabtree accepts the trend of greater parental involvement in schools but finds the idea of parents “actually starting schools” and “oddly challenging vision” because “we don’t, after all, imagine patients starting hospitals, or commuters building roads.” (A comparison that fails to appreciate the role of parents as the first educators of their children.) He quotes someone who says a parent-led system is “dangerously susceptible to enthusiasts” -- “enthusiast” being a euphemism for “painful parents” such as might belong to certain “faith groups -- some less savoury than others”. This and the possibility of greater school choice for some leaving other parents and children with inferior schools seem to be the writer’s chief concerns.

British Labour prime minister Tony Blair began pushing parental involvement a decade ago and legislation in 2006 allowed parents, for the first time, the right to open schools. Now, Conservative party leader David Cameron and his education spokesman Michael Gove are promising some 3000 new schools over the next decade or so. These would be free, state schools mostly run by charities or other outside groups, and some could be opened by parents.

Crabtree pinpoints three factors in the rise of parent power. First, as attitudes to marriage and family life changed it became evident that a stable family with two parents provided the best educational and other outcomes for children. Second, post-war parents began to set more store by a good education. And third, “as the heart of Britain's economy shifted from manufacturing to services, the skills that are best instilled by parents--such as dedication, discipline and good communication--became more important in the labour market.”

In America, the extraordinary growth of home schooling has been boosted by the additional factor of parental concern about their children’s faith and morals. The US also has charter schools set up by private initiative which are publicly funded, and some teacher-led schools.

In Sweden, a highly-centralised socialist country, a swing to the centre-right in 1992 brought in a government that responded to parental and business concerns about a monolithic -- and very expensive -- school system. The new system gave children a virtual voucher to spend at any state school. Around 15 per cent of Swedish children now attend the new free schools set up by parents, charities and businesses. Many have been acquired by chains of private companies which run the schools (and are allowed to make a profit) but foster parent involvement.

Crabtree predicts that if the Conservatives do get to govern they will follow the Swedish model and there will be a growing number of parent-led free schools, many probably operating in partnership with management companies. And yes, this “radical” opening to parent power and entrepreneurship within the state system does seem to worry him somewhat. Exactly how this new mixture of powers would be more risky than the power of the old centralised state system, however, is not clear. ~ Prospect, April 2009



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