Parents as partners in education - the Scottish way

Eileen Prior

Eileen Prior is Executive Director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC), a long standing...

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11 February, 2016 : 17:11

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As PTA UK does in England, SPTC (Scottish Parent Teacher Council) works with parent groups in Scotland to support parental involvement in education.

In Scotland it is recognised that families play an extremely important role in education, which is reflected in its policy and legislation.

I suspect that this came as part of the devolution of education to the Scottish Government and the approach that had been growing over a number of years – and of course the evidence from research.

“Parental involvement is about supporting pupils and their learning. It is about parents and teachers working together in partnership to help children become more confident learners. All the evidence shows when parents, carers and other family members are effectively involved in their children’s education, the outcome for their children is better”. Peter Peacock, Minister for Education and Young People, Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 Guidance.

Over recent years in Scotland, we have made ambitious reforms to our curriculum, qualifications, teacher development and professional learning and parental involvement. The Parental Involvement Act of 2006 gives all parents and carers (the Parent Forum) with children at a school the right to create a Parent Council (PC) to represent them and to work with the school staff on their behalf. Parent Councils replaced School Boards as the mechanism for parental involvement in schools. Scotland is the only nation in the UK with this model.

“The Parent Council, as a statutory body, has the right to information and advice on matters which affect children's education. In all cases, parents and the Parent Council can expect to influence decisions, to be listened to and be taken seriously. For example, it has an important role to play in the recruitment process for appointing the head and deputy head teacher of the school”. Guidance on the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006.

SPTC’s role as a membership organisation for parent groups has given us a unique perspective on the changes as we are able to hear first hand from parents about their experiences as individuals and as members of the Parent Forum. We work with parents directly – supporting groups in schools and providing individual help and advice on the breadth of issues parents deal with around schools and schooling. We also work at a national level, with government and its agencies, the Scottish Parliament, professional associations and other bodies with an interest in children, families and education. We share the perspectives of parents and promote the importance of family involvement in learning.

Our message is that – almost without exception – parents want the best for their children. They want their children to achieve more and go further than they did, but the challenge for many families is to translate this ambition into reality. I see it as part of our role to help parents achieve that reality because the alternative is to squander children’s future and deny their contribution to society. It’s a focus that our education system in Scotland largely supports, both through legislation and policy. This approach is based on the raft of research which demonstrates that children’s outcomes are better when parents or carers are involved in their learning. One of our challenges is a lack of common understanding around what ‘involved in learning’ actually means in and around schools.

I believe one of the most important things for parent groups to focus on is the role they play in helping all parents and carers to be involved in learning and the school community, because it is this which makes a difference to outcomes for our kids, and particularly those that face disadvantage. That’s why we’ve recently started working on a new initiative called Partnership Schools Scotland (PSS).

With funding from Skills Development Scotland, PSS is based on the work of Dr Joyce Epstein and her team at the Johns Hopkins University, who have developed a model for family and community engagement which we are introducing to school communities in different parts of Scotland. Based on the principles of interdependency and shared endeavour, this work focuses firmly on improving outcomes for young people by tapping into the talents and commitment of all those who have the best interests of children at heart.

There’s a keen interest in the programme here in Scotland – once we have some results to share, we’ll make sure to spread the word!

The Welsh Government has also begun to put parents central to education, launching resources that help families actively support learning and embarking on the development and roll out of a new curriculum. The experience here in Scotland has been that, as ever, communication is the key. Communication has to be two-way and be appropriate to the audience: most parents rely on their child’s school for information, and that information has to be meaningful and relevant to them. Much of the language around the new curriculum in Scotland was woolly and jargon-heavy. So my advice to them is take care and time to ensure there is real communication with parents, to address their concerns and questions and ensure they are clear about the purpose of the proposed change.

Photographs: Partnership Schools Scotland, St.Francis School

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Eileen Prior

Eileen Prior is Executive Director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC), a long standing charity which offers support and information on all aspects of education to parents and carers. In addition, SPTC is recognised in the education sector as a significant reference point in relation to parental involvement and perspectives.

Eileen heads a small staff team providing support services and, since joining SPTC in 2010, has been responsible for strengthening the organisation's engagement with both its members and the wider educational community.

Eileen spent most of her career as a PR professional, both running her own business and as a director of the Scottish operation of Weber Shandwick. Eileen has served on the GTCS and as a volunteer board member with a range of organisations which promote parental involvement in children's services. She currently serves as a member of SQA's Advisory Council.