The Challenge Facing Parent Councils in Canada

Article excerpt

During the 1990s, departments of education in all the Canadian provinces introduced legislation requiring all publicly funded schools to form parent advisory councils. A majority of schools now have councils, and by the year 2000 virtually every school will have one. The intention of this legislation is to provide parents with the opportunity and training to participate in school decisions. The establishment of formal advisory councils represents a significant opportunity for parents, yet also poses a major challenge: How can parents contribute meaningfully to school decisions that affect learning? This article describes the context of parent councils in Canada, and discusses three aspects of this challenge: 1) establishing parents' authority as decision-makers, 2) expanding parents' roles and 3) widening the constituency of involved parents.(1)

Parent Advisory Councils in Canada

Unlike most developed countries, Canada does not have a national government body responsible for education. Instead, the federal government provides transfer payments to the ten provinces and two territories, which have constitutional jurisdiction over education matters. Consequently, no national group sets the agenda for cooperation between home and school, and there is little collaboration on this issue among provincial departments of education.

Canadians take considerable pride in the equality of opportunity afforded by their education system, medical system and other social services. This ideology has a pervasive influence on policy-making at all levels. Historically, parents voiced their concerns through informal advisory councils, advocacy groups, and home-and-school associations. School staff were generally responsive to parents' concerns; parents seldom resorted to formal grievance procedures, and legal disputes were uncommon.

Recently, however, Canadians have become increasingly concerned about the quality of their schools. Compared with most European countries, Canada did not fare well in recent international studies of literacy skills and academic achievement (Willms, 1997). Conservative advocacy groups have called for the formation of charter schools with selective admission criteria, higher standards and stricter discipline. Teacher unions and many academic researchers have called for "restructuring" of schools to give parents, teachers and students greater autonomy (Fullan, 1992). Provincial governments, faced with massive funding cutbacks, have responded by consolidating school districts, transferring more authority to principals and placing greater emphasis on parental involvement.

Councils vary among provinces in their composition and formal roles. A few provincial councils only include parents, but in most provinces they comprise some designated combination of parents, teachers, principals, non-teaching school staff, community members and senior students. In most cases, the councils' role is advisory; they do not participate directly in setting policy or making school-related decisions. The scope of the advisory mandate varies among provinces, and may include helping to set curriculum policies, as well as decisions about budgeting, transportation, hiring practices, and development of school improvement plans.

Parent councils frequently co-exist with home-and-school associations. These associations are affiliated with the Canadian Home-School Parent-Teachers Federation, a national organization more than a century old. The Federation supports the establishment of parent councils and encourages other forms of parental involvement.

The formation of parent councils has increased dramatically the number of parents directly involved in school affairs. New Brunswick will be an interesting case to follow because in 1997, its provincial government disbanded elected school boards in favor of three levels of parent councils that advise at the school, district and provincial levels. Over 2,000 parents now serve on advisory councils in the province, which has a student population of approximately 80,000. …