We won! But we carry on regardless.

This is me, now:

West Lothian Council have emailed me tonight to say that, after all, our son Andrew can go back into the nursery class and re-start Primary One in August, for which we’ve been asking for three months.

So we won.

It still rankles though. A parent shouldn’t have to develop this level of knowledge of education law, be this persistent and fight this hard to get something so relatively straightforward.

Here’s a short quote from an email sent to us on 17 January this year:

“A parent is not required to give any reason for withdrawing their child but the education authority is required to consider whether the child will receive efficient education, suitable to age, ability and aptitude. Therefore, if the child is withdrawn from school, consideration will have to be given as to whether this child will receive efficient education and if not, appropriate proceedings initiated.”

Parents shouldn’t have to face this kind of threat, which as I worked out was based on an ignorant understanding of the legislation.

So the blog goes on absolutely regardless. We hope that we can share what we have learned  about the law, about the ways in which you can make your voice heard and push back against the pressure, and how to win.

Much more important things than this happened in Scottish education today. But tonight, we drink from the keg of glory.

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Consultation on Changing Your Rights to Complain

The Scottish Government are consulting on repealing section 70 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, which gives anyone the right to complain to Scottish Ministers about an education body such as a school or council failing to meet a statutory obligation. This could be about anything to do with any legal right, including the rights in our section on the law. One of these rights is that children should be educated, within reason, in accordance with the wishes of their parents. So these rights are very wide.

If you wish to respond to the consultation paper you have until 28 March 2014.

There are specific mechanisms for complaining about school closures, additional support for learning and independent schools, so Section 70 is currently a catch-all for anything else.  

When a complaint is made to Scottish Ministers under Section 70 it is passed to Her Majesty’s Inspectors of education to investigate and make recommendations. These are the same people who routinely inspect all schools and education authorities in Scotland.

At a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee on 26 June 2012 Mike Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, said:

Anybody who is a constituency MSP knows that, although there may not be many complaints,  there are particularly profound difficulties for individual families. I am dissatisfied with the current data system and with the section 70 system, which I think is out of date. We need to look carefully at how complaints are handled and restitution is sought. We need to improve the data system and look more widely at our education complaint systems.

The proposal to repeal Section 70 is somewhat buried in a consultation paper called, and I quote, Extending the Rights of Children with Capacity Under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 (as Amended) and Repealing Section 70 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 Consultation Paper

The proposal is that, instead of HM Inspectors investigating these “failure of duty” complaints on behalf of Scottish Ministers, they would be sent to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).

I have nothing against SPSO at all, they do a perfectly good job. But I’m not in favour of them taking on this role, because:

  • A complaint can only be made to SPSO once all local complaints procedures have been exhausted. In some circumstances, such as where an education authority is failing to meet its duty to provide education, this could leave a child outside of education for an unacceptably long period of time. Also, there are examples of education authorities deliberately taking an unacceptably long period to consider a complaint, the effect of which being to render the outcome of the complaint moot. SPSO cannot intervene when this happens, they can only comment later. They thus lack the power to ensure effective and immediate action.
  • Under Section 70, Scottish Ministers may order an education provider to do something. This has the full force of law. But school and local authorities are not legally required to follow the instructions of SPSO, so the power to enforce a decision becomes much weaker.
  • SPSO simply do not have the clout that Scottish Ministers have. Education Authorities are much more likely to respect an order from Scottish Ministers, in spirit and in practice, than the findings of SPSO.
  • More than any other service SPSO scrutinise, education is governed by a complex and comprehensive web of primary and secondary legislation, case law and treaty rights. Education is simply not comparable to any other service provided by local authorities. Properly considering complaints in this area requires a very substantial level of understanding of education law and how it has been interpreted in case law. SPSO are very good at considering procedural and fairness issues, but they do not have a sufficient track record in enforcement of legal rights and duties to be given this responsibility.
  • Removing the s.70 route for parents will increase the likelihood of them moving straight to judicial review, which will be more resource-intensive on all sides.

The right to make a complaint about education services should be much better promoted. Virtually nobody outside of legal and parent/ child advocate groups has ever heard of s.70. Fewer still are aware of s.28(1) of the 1980 Act. Parents feel powerless in the face of the school and local authority, and are not encouraged to consider how best to assert their rights. Whatever the outcome of this consultation, more effort should be made to inform parents widely on their ability to challenge decisions made that affect their child.

The consultation paper is correct that disputes should be resolved at as local a level as possible, but that is often not possible. It is naïve to think that parents are not frequently unhappy with their local authority, and s.70 is an important tool in their armoury to ensure that their children’s needs are being met.

So, please, consider responding to the consultation paper before 28 March 2014 if you want this power to be maintained, or even strengthened. You could also contact one of the many parents’ or children’s rights groups to give them your view so that it can help inform their response. Parents need to get their hands dirty and get involved in the machinery.

Education – Parents Can Look, But They Can’t Touch

Last year our daughter joined the school eco-group, a committee of children who meet once a week after school and talked about environmental issues relevant to them at school. She decided she didn’t want to attend any more, so she told her teacher. So without checking with us the teacher let her quit and gave her place to another child. It’s not up to the school to provide childcare, but obviously our childcare was arranged around it and it left a hole. We had to complain to the headteacher to get her back in the group. Not a great lesson in sticking with your commitments, either.

Do-not-touch

The daughter of a friend of ours was learning an instrument at school, but decided she wanted to stop. So she stopped. And nobody told her parents, or asked if this was alright.

Another friend was concerned about some unpleasant behaviour towards her daughter from girls in her class. It’s a two-stream primary and when a girl in the other stream left, she asked if her daughter could move into the other class, in which were most of her friends. The school said no, and they’d look into it in the summer, six months later.

What these little stories indicate is this: when it comes to power over school education, parents have none.

Now I have to confess, in general I strongly believe that teachers are better judges of the educational needs of any given child than the parent. It’s not just disrespectful, it’s also flatly inaccurate to think that their years in university, training, probation and practice haven’t equipped them to do the job better than you or me. That’s a generalisation of course – I’ve met some teachers who I wouldn’t let run a tuck-shop, and who wouldn’t know a past participle if they found one in their soup. But as a rule of thumb, teacher knows better.

Also, there are plenty of children in Scotland whose parents are messing them up more than any school ever could.

But when did that translate into parents being kept in the dark and only included in their children’s education as and when the school sees fit?

I knew a teacher from New Zealand who came to work in Scotland and was shocked at how little communication there was with parents. Sure, parents got their newsletters telling them about upcoming trips and all the rest of it, but when it came to wee Jimmy’s education, the only communication with wee Jimmy’s parents were the two five-minute sessions at parents’ night. Unless, of course, wee Jimmy was setting fire to the toilets.

I’ve never been told how I can reach my children’s teachers. When I’ve had to tell them something it’s been by the note-in-the-bag routine, which, as communication methods go, is only one degree less risky than using carrier pigeons in occupied France. I don’t hear anything coming the other way, presumably because my children aren’t causing problems that require parental involvement. That’s pretty much all we are to most teachers – help with discipline, sign the homework book and if you’re really good a bit of reading to your kids before bedtime.

The Tory MP Rory Stewart made an interesting point in a Guardian interview recently:

“In a way, he says, ordinary Afghans are far more powerful than British citizens, because at least they feel they can have a role in one of the country’s 20,000 villages. ‘But in our situation we’re all powerless. I mean, we pretend we’re run by people. We’re not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere.’”

He’s right, because if an Afghani parent is unhappy about something going on in the school, they can take it to the old men with white beards (though maybe not so much the mums). Discussions are had locally, and decisions are made locally. And they don’t need the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 to help them.

Meanwhile, here, we can go along to our Parent Council meetings and be told whatever the headteacher chooses to tell us. Getting an answer to questions is a different matter. How many Parent Councils have a mechanism for parents to just ask the headteacher questions, and make sure they are answered? A quick AOB while the janitor is rattling his keys doesn’t count.

Over the past couple of years I’ve asked for the school to come to the Parent Council with information on school meals, and to bring someone from the firm who have the contract to run the school building. Not happened, never going to happen. We’ll be told what the headteacher chooses to tell us, and that’s it.

So many parents stop bothering coming to the meetings: what’s the point. In fact many never start, because they don’t understand the power that they ought to have.

And where is the power in Scottish education? Not with parents, that much is clear. A lot of it is with teachers, who are autonomous in the classrooms to a remarkable degree. Some is with headteachers, but the extent to which they have to follow orders from the local authority is surprising. Council officials feel belittled by the Scottish Government, but really they get to do what they want. Sure, councillors might expect to be involved but in practice they only concern themselves with the hot-button issues like school closures. Hardly any are qualified for or capable of much more than nodding politely when the crunchy educational stuff comes before them, and the officials know it. And then there’s the Scottish Government, who can create as many laws as they like, but they can never expect to affect meaningfully the culture at class level.

Which leaves power over the decisions that really matter to you and your children with the school and the council.

So schools believe that it’s the role of parents to raise funds, to get involved in jobs like tidying up the school grounds and selling second-hand uniforms, to turn up for school shows and clap enthusiastically. But education? We can look, but we’re not allowed to touch.