The problems with parent power

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Ed Miliband's recent call for the public to be given a greater say in public services may sounds good, but is giving parents the power to sack headteachers really sensible? Our headteacher diarist argues against the idea.

Recently Ed Miliband, in a speech about public sector reform, suggested that the public should be given a much greater say in determining how various public services are run. 

He stated: “We should always be seeking to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services.”

Among his suggestions were that patients should be able to influence policy at their local hospital and that parents should be given the power to remove poorly performing headteachers.

While, perhaps not surprisingly, it was the reference to “sacking” headteachers that caught my eye, it was the wider thrust of the speech that really made me think. 

Politicians should be wary of giving out power to what, in many cases, may be groups with specific and narrow concerns. While there may be some who have the knowledge and expertise to take a broad view of difficult policy issues, surely most people using a public service simply want the experience and outcomes to be positive.

Public services such as hospitals and schools are large, highly complex organisations and yet there is this, largely untested, view that they would be best served by handing over greater power to the users of the service. Where is the hard evidence that such a redistribution of power would lead to improved public services?

Speeches such as this can be seen as part of the wider current political orthodoxy that the “public is always right”. However, this is simply not true. Mr Miliband’s presumption that “decisions should be made by users and public servant together” may sound good in a speech, but is highly questionable in practice. Decisions are often difficult and involve compromise. While the views of “users” may form part of a decision, there is a world of difference between considering such views and making a decision “together”.

Turning closer to home and “sacking” headteachers. There are already plenty of ways that a headteacher can be held accountable. The position of headteacher must be one of the most exposed and accountable in any profession. If parents are not satisfied with a headteacher’s performance there are already a number of options available for them to make their views known.

However, I do not believe that it is right to give parents a new specific power to “sack” a headteacher. The problem with handing out such powers is that they can be easily hijacked by certain special interest groups. 

I am sure that most headteachers have had experience of “difficult” parents. It is a fact of life that such parents exist and they already take up a disproportionate amount of a headteacher’s time. 

Why should they be presented with another means to cause trouble? Even with the vast majority of well-meaning and supportive parents, it is a fact that their main concerns will, inevitably, be their own child’s happiness and performance. Are they necessarily the right people to be making decisions for the long-term prospects of the school?

There is also perhaps a wider point to be made about parental involvement in schools. In my experience, it is very difficult to persuade the majority of parents to engage with the school. When events have been put on to allow parents to put their views (eg, as part of academy conversion consultation), attendance has been woeful.

While this is something that we are trying to improve, why should parents as a body be given new powers to influence how the school is run when so few are using the means already available (as anyone who has tried to recruit new parent-governors will know). I am all in favour of increased parental involvement in a school’s day-to-day activities. However, I think the profession should not be afraid to stand up and say that it is they, not parents, who are best qualified to run schools.

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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