As president of the Parents’ Association, are you the person responsible for school buses and after-school childcare?
Not any longer! Until last school year these services were indeed run by the Board of the Parents’ Association. Now we have a dedicated services company – EuroKids, with a General Manager in charge.
But the Parents’ Association still has an important role to play. In the past it was not as visible as the daily services. It consists in representing parents and working for the school community. Now we want to fully focus on this role. Unlike services, it cannot be delegated to staff or external providers.
Why is representing parents so important?
There is one aspect of the European Schools system that most people are not aware of. Can you imagine that in your country you would be invited as a parent to give your opinion to the Ministry of Education? In our system you are! Parents have a guaranteed place on all decision-making bodies. Both on school and system level. This is a unique opportunity to try to influence things. It is entirely up to us how we use it, and if we make use of it at all.
Of all the stakeholders, we parents have the most at stake: it is about our children!
Is this why you joined the PA?
Frankly, five years ago I had almost no idea what the PA was about. By then my daughters were already in the Secondary (we came to Frankfurt and the ESF in 2004), I had attended a couple of not-quite-exciting General Meetings and read a few messages from a mysterious PedCom. At that point I was also painfully aware that somehow my daughters attending the English section, with Polish mother tongue, hadn’t absorbed the German language the way everyone said they would. If we were to start again, I would have done things differently – small things, like getting a German-speaking babysitter even though I could manage without. So when a colleague said that the PA Board was looking for new members, and that there were very few ECB people on the Board (this hasn’t changed...), I thought I would volunteer to represent the “students without a language section”, to share my experience with other parents and maybe help them avoid my mistakes. And so my PA adventure started.
Was it so exciting right from the start?
The first year was a learning curve. You jump on a rolling train and all the names, abbreviations, fora, regulations, etc. can be a little overwhelming. But you can soon get involved in interesting things!
Can you give us some examples?
I started with the Pedagogical Committee, the PedCom – a meeting of school directors, teachers, parents and pupils. We, parents’ representatives, collect feedback from all classes, discard individual complaints (for instance, about specific teachers), put aside issues we cannot win (always a “No” to requests for a touch-typing course), make sure to include any positive statements (like praising a lecture on drug prevention or thanking for extra revision before exams), and compile a final list of our topics for the agenda. Then at the meeting all parties present their points: from recruitment of teachers to vandalised toilets (directors); from concerns about maths syllabus reform to deadline for submitting class trip forms (teachers); from noise in the library to a cooking club project (students); and from lack of differentiation in language teaching to expensive schools books bought but never put into use (parents). You get a lot of insight into how the school works, what constraints there are, how much commitment there is (or lacks)…
Do you always get what you ask for?
Not always, not immediately, and not fully. First, it is important to build a relationship of trust with the school. I try to approach people assuming that they have good intentions. It is a useful attitude, especially in a multicultural environment: in your mother tongue it is much easier to “read” people, but here you mostly deal with foreigners, usually via a third language. I know that for many parents the need to communicate in English can be discouraging. But when there is a will, there is a way, so don’t be shy!
Back to building trust: if you show understanding, you are much more likely to be heard. Some of my colleagues at the Bank perceive the European School as a perquisite, a part of recruitment package. So they expect the school to deliver. But unrealistic demands are not helpful at all. Our PedCom team has managed to work constructively and achieved much more by dialogue. Of course, when caught between the school and the parents, we are often the messenger that gets shot at from both sides…
You mentioned the system level, what does it mean?
Yes, this was the next step for me. Parents have a seat on the governing bodies for the whole European Schools system: the Joint Teaching Committee, the Budget Committee and the ultimate decision-makers – the Board of Governors. These seats are filled by Interparents – a forum bringing together parents’ associations of all European Schools. For two years I represented our PA at Interparents, with two other Board colleagues, and I even participated twice in the Joint Teaching Committee! Interparents meet four times a year, each time in a different school. I had to use up some of my annual leave to attend but it was worth it. They are a fantastic group: committed, hardworking and very friendly. And they can have quite an impact! Although parents can formally vote only on some matters, they can present their opinion on all issues on the table and achieve a lot by networking and participation in various working groups. Examples? It was largely thanks to Interparents that the reform of marking scale (coming next year) didn’t become a disaster it was shaping up to be. It was on Interparents’ insistence that a fallback plan was in place when a new online correction system for Baccalaureate exam papers was first implemented this year.
Going to these meetings is of course exciting, but the real work is done from home: reading various documents and sharing views. There is a level of trust between the governing bodies and Interparents, and our comments, although not always welcome, are nevertheless taken seriously.
Good to know that there is someone working for the benefit of our children.
Now this is a common misconception: that there is someone out there doing some – possibly useful – things under the label of “parents”. Please don’t think of it as “them”, think about “us”. The Board of our Association as well as Interparents are parents like everyone else, who want to improve the school environment for their children. Having had a chance to look at other European Schools, I can say that the best schools are those where parents are more engaged.
Are many people interested in working with the PA?
To maintain the momentum and keep the organisational memory, we need an influx of new parents every year. And somehow this is very difficult to achieve. Candidates never came in droves but last year we didn’t even manage to fill all 15 positions on the Board. Can you imagine that? With 1500 pupils in the school, with over 700 members of the PA, we didn’t get 15 people on Board? It’s sad…
Your term as president is almost over. What is your message for parents who have children in the ESF?
The European Schools have been struggling for years. Inefficient and insufficient funding, shortage of teachers, outdated curricula, incompatibility of language regime with changing demographics, now Brexit… It is in need of a vision, but instead is being fixed with ad hoc patches. You can say: if top guys in Brussels cannot reach an agreement, what can a parent from Frankfurt achieve? You can say: there are experts out there, I have no idea how all this works, let alone how it can be improved. You can say: before anything happens, my kids will have finished school. All this is true. And yet – nobody should be more concerned about the future of these schools than us, parents. So if there is even a small chance that something you do may help, do it! Despite all problems, we have a really unique system that is worth defending, worth improving, worth working for.
I encourage you to come to the Annual General Assembly of the Parents’ Association on Tuesday 28 November at 19.30 in the school aula.