The parental view of Scottish education

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A new parental involvement action plan hopes to better involve families in school life. Sam Phipps talks to the National Parent Forum of Scotland about the plan and its other priorities for parents and education

The day I met Joanna Murphy at her office in Edinburgh’s Haymarket, the new school year was into its second day and a furore over standardised tests for primary 1 pupils was into its second week.

Widespread reports of upset four and five-year olds who sat the assessments last year, and a union-backed campaign to get parents to opt their children out in 2018/19, were dominating the news. Complaints have ranged from the suitability or otherwise of the computerised material to the way the 45-minute tests were presented and handled.

Meanwhile, a familiar secondary school backdrop of tight budgets and looming industrial action by teachers over pay and conditions, as well as confusion left by the Scottish government’s scrapping in June of planned legislative reforms, might give grounds for gloom as another academic year gets under way.

However, Ms Murphy, the chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, is keen to emphasise that for all the challenges facing pupils, parents and teachers, a sense of perspective is needed – and there is much to celebrate.

“As a parent you want everything for your child. It’s sometimes easy to overlook the huge amount of good work that is being done in schools every day in Scotland. And the teacher-pupil relationship is really good most of the time too.”

Double ambition

The National Parent Forum of Scotland, set up in 2009 as an umbrella group for parent councils in the wake of the 2006 Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act, sees its role as twofold: offering a parental perspective to national and local government and other organisations, and working in partnership with all these to try to ensure that all children achieve the best educational outcomes.

Ms Murphy sums up the forum’s work like this: “We provide information at ground level to parents and represent parents to government at top level.”

The forum runs focus groups for parents to have their say and holds national and local events such as conferences and information days. It also supports local parent councils with advice, information and practical help.

The “I” word crops up a lot with Ms Murphy – information, or a lack of it, is what most often causes concern and acrimony between parents and schools, she says, particularly when changes come as thick and fast as they have in recent years.

First there has been Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), then several years of talk about a raft of reforms that are now meant to take place voluntarily rather than through a change in the law. This is because in the summer the Scottish government and Cosla reached a deal that set out several principles, including that: schools should be empowered to make the decisions that most affect outcomes for students, the goal of empowering headteachers will be applied consistently across Scotland, and councils will be able to intervene if headteachers breach statutory, financial or contractual obligations.

Action plan

In August, the Scottish government and National Parent Forum launched Learning Together, a three-year action plan to improve parental involvement across the country. It contains 13 goals and 52 recommendations, drawing on the forum’s independent review of the 2006 Parental Involvement Act, which was published last year. Local authorities have committed to its implementation.

Deputy first minister John Swinney said: “We know there is a strong link between parental engagement and academic achievement and this plan will play a key role in helping to reduce the attainment gap.”

Among the goals are: expanding the ways parents can collaborate at every level of the education system, including volunteering and family learning, and improving communication between schools and parents.

Targeted actions will support specific groups including ethnic minority parents, parents of children with additional support needs, those with disabled children and those with learning disabilities.

“We don’t need new legislation for parental involvement. It’s a question of making parents aware of what they can already do,” Ms Murphy said, who is also a member of the Scottish Education Committee and is therefore active in all policy groups.

“We’re not a militant body, it’s about providing information to do with schools as they are so new to parents. We help them understand ways of learning, the whole CfE ethos.

“You have to remember: the pupils’ world today is very different to the one their parents went through. It is not even a question of rights, really. It is how they can support their child – often a parent becomes put off if they, or the school, don’t approach things the right way.”

In terms of curricular help, the forum produces a Nationals in a Nutshell series, for maths, English and other subjects. These are a single A4 sheet summary, also available online, covering:

  • What skills will my child develop?
  • What will my child experience during the course?
  • Assessment and real-life contexts in the classroom.

Poverty trap

With so much talk and policy geared around narrowing the attainment gap between richer and poorer students, Ms Murphy is keen to point out the risks of “condemning” whole sections of young people by blunt definitions of deprivation. At the same time, she is well aware of how choices and life chances can be affected. More than one in four children in Scotland are officially recognised as living in poverty.

The forum has produced a publication entitled The Cost of the School Day, a toolkit for parent councils to identify where costs are affecting low-income families in their school and to provide actions to help “poverty-proof” the school.

It looks at assumptions behind fundraising events, school trips, transport to extra-curricular activities, and so on. One girl from S3 is quoted as saying: “You also need to buy a lot of stuff because you cannae really go in the same clothes that you wore to the last non-uniform because people notice that. Sometimes it gets to be like a catwalk or something.” A parent adds: “My children are in small school and it really is noticeable if they don’t go on trips and are basically the only ones left in school.”

“Money in schools doesn’t fix poverty,” Ms Murphy continued. “It might help alleviate some of the problems like free school meals instead of holiday hunger, for instance, but unless wider social policies are enacted, there’s a limit to what schools alone can achieve. If you’re living in a cold wet home, school doesn’t fix that. But at least the school should be warm and dry so it’s vital the educational estate is well maintained.”

Sanitary progress

The forum has also welcomed the government’s commitment to provide access to free sanitary products for those attending schools, colleges and universities in Scotland from the start of this academic term.

More than a quarter of students have struggled to access sanitary products at some point in the previous 12 months because, among other reasons, they couldn’t afford them, according to research. Some students have also had to miss school or skip classes because they didn’t have access to products when they needed them.

“Obviously there’s a cost implication but it’s another one of the things that can lessen the impact of poverty in a small way,” Ms Murphy said. “A girl shouldn’t be embarrassed or have to borrow money or go home when she is having her period.”

Mental health

“Attitudes to lots of things are changing, including greater awareness of how depression and mental illness affect pupils,” Ms Murphy continued.

In August, the forum responded to the alarming rise in mental health issues among young people by backing a campaign to ensure counselling provision in all Scottish schools. Counselling services are provided in only one in 10 Scottish schools, according to a recent BBC report, with more than 250,000 children having no access to school-based counselling services.

Over the past three years 17,500 children have had their mental health referrals to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) rejected. The current waiting list for children and young people for CAMHS often exceeds the government’s 18-week standard according to NHS statistics. Offering early intervention in schools will also ease pressure on acute services and other helplines and referrals.

“Quite a lot of parents say: what can I do about my child’s mental health issue? We have already raised with the deputy first minister (John Swinney) the question of support for young people. It shouldn’t have to reach crisis point before you get to see a counsellor.”
On average two teenagers in every secondary school classroom will have hurt themselves in response to the pressure of growing up in an increasingly complex and challenging world (NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde).

Clicked

Another recent publication by the forum, Clicked, offers valuable advice on how parental and school websites and chat groups can avoid some of the pitfalls of social media.

“Parents were concerned about the lack of any social media policy, so we have produced this guide. It is about basic communication and courtesy – don’t write something down that you wouldn’t say face-to-face, and how to avoid big fights developing.”

The guide also urges parents to think about their child’s safety and how this can be compromised by casually sharing too much information. It also reminds them to treat school staff with patience and respect online: “Try to remember that you are not the only parent/carer; your child is not the only pupil,” it states.

Ms Murphy added: “Our advice is always that if you have an issue with the school, raise it directly with the school by phone, email or in person.”

The key point about schools is that it is impossible to generalise, she said. “Every school will be doing well in several areas. It will more often than not be flexible in meeting the needs of the community it serves. But you tend not to see much of that in the media. That can affect teachers’ morale and nobody thinks of the damage that does to parents and pupils. I find that very difficult to take.”

  • Sam Phipps is a freelance education journalist.

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