Community participation in school policies

School principals, public service section heads, senior academics and defence officers came together in the national capital for a while in the mid-Seventies on school boards. These boards were an innovation. They replaced an inspectorial system controlled by an education agency. … Each community would administer its own school, through school boards, whose CEO would be the principal. Boards could decide on curricula, standards and practices. This revolutionary approach was introduced just when the USA was having second thoughts about it all.

Community involvement in schools had hitherto been through Parents and Citizens Association (P&C). A few concerned parents met regularly to run the school canteens and to raise funds. They did a good job. Each P&C had a representative on a system-wide body looking at education policy, making representations to the education authority, …

My involvement in the P&C commenced when my wife dragged me to a P&C meeting saying that fathers too should support their school. In addition, since our daughter was the only coloured child in the school, she felt that community knowledge of the father’s interest in her life at school might prove to be useful. At the meeting, I was careless enough to ask a couple of questions, and finished up as vice-president of the P&C …

My wife spent ten years in all at the school, repairing school library books, helping at the tuck shop, listening to children read, collecting clothing and funds for major disasters overseas as well as for some local welfare cases, and generally helping out. She remained a full-time mother. We were thereby poorer than many of our neighbours and colleagues. I attended the odd meeting, occasionally representing the school at the system-wide P&C policy meeting.

One day my wife brought a message from the current school principal: would I stand for the school board? I had not thought of it, but I liked the man. His wife and he had been dinner guests at our home in his first year. In about four hours of talk about schooling, we had not been able to disagree. I had invited him to dinner to discuss a small difference of opinion between me and one of my son’s teachers. She would not allow him to bring his school books home over the holidays. … She complained to the principal – about what? I wondered. But teachers then were not used to parents disagreeing with them or talking back.

The community elected me to the board and I found myself the chairman within three minutes of the first meeting; my own nominee for the position lost. It was a superb board. The parents included a psychologist (a practising Quaker and feminist), an accountant and me. The teachers included the two assistant principals and the principal. The principle that the community as a whole decided what was to be done, with the professionals, the teachers, deciding how it would be done, actually worked. We laboured harmoniously and productively in that first year. But we did not touch the curriculum.

Near the end of one meeting, I was told by the principal that three children in the final year of primary school had signed a protest against a teacher and lodged it with the appropriate assistant principal. The background was that the class as a whole felt that the teacher was discriminating against a particular student. And a couple of years earlier another teacher had taught them about their rights to protest, including the right to strike.

When I asked what the school proposed to do, there was great laughter. One of the three signatories was my son; I had no idea. My wife told me later that, earlier in the day, she had passed my son in the school corridor. When she asked what he was looking so pleased about, he had merely said that he was going to see the assistant principal. Another signatory was the accountant’s daughter who (later) said that she had signed “real small”, as she was frightened, but wanted to protest anyway.

This was not a matter for the board. The three parents felt that the school administration should handle it. However, I did drop the thought that any mishaps befalling the three signatories would be over my dead body.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ bring out one of the societal changes by a new federal government. Perhaps unwisely, the government wanted to adopt an American practice just when the US seemed to have second thoughts about it all.

The new practice initially brought out as members of boards those who had demonstrated competence in their own jobs. Soon the scheme deteriorated, because the meetings were held at 4pm, as sought by teachers. My day finished at about 6pm. When I was the representative of the Schools Authority on a school board, I discovered that teachers from other schools were now the parent representatives.

Without an external inspectorial system, the principals took control of their schools. I had a gut feeling that this was a planned outcome by the educational bureaucrats, some of whom were principals seconded from their schools. That raised the issue of whether independent parents of proven competence had any future role in guiding schools to desired outcomes. I also wondered how the competence of teachers was appraised without an external body qualified to do that. Was there merit protection available?)