We recently saw first-hand how MPs can engage with their local parent community when Ruth Cadbury, Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth, invited groups of primary and secondary PTA parents into parliament to discuss any issues that they had. Parentkind was invited to join for tea at Portcullis House and meet some of our members, and we also chatted to Ruth about how parents can get more involved in education decision-making and make their voices heard.
What do you think the PTA committee members have taken out of their visit to parliament?
A few people said they enjoyed seeing parliament, because it's a historical place, and one parent said it's both grand and intimate. Everybody who goes to the House of Commons chamber is surprised at how small it is. They enjoyed the tour by the professional guides, and appreciated the chance to talk to me about local issues affecting schooling in Hounslow, such as school crossing patrols and more national things like school funding. Then we had a conversation about Brexit as well. It covered all bases, and the parents appeared to have had a good time.
Is this part of UK Parliament Week, and if so, what is the week all about?
As I understand it, UK Parliament Week is happening all around the country and at all different levels, so children are marking it at school, there are community events, and different sectors and organisations are involved. I had my constituency’s Afghanistan community visit for Parliament Week, so it's an opportunity for people of all ages and places to learn about parliament. It's also one hundred years since the first women were able to sit in parliament. There's a full-size Lego model of a suffragette downstairs. Any chance we get to talk about parliament allows us to explain what it is - and the difference between parliament and government.
How do you think parents and PTAs can get more actively engaged in having their voice heard at school and government levels?
Every time I talk to children in school about my job, to explain what being a Member of Parliament is, I make the analogy of the school council. This is understood particularly by those in Y5 and Y6 who have been school councillors. I ask them what issues concerned them and did they resolve them? I make the link with political representation. For a lot of people, getting involved and sticking their head above the parapet can be difficult, especially if it's about changing something you're unhappy about. That's different to fundraising to buy goalposts for the football team. So for parents, somebody may have made a decision that influences you in a way you don't like, so you have to first of all find out who was responsible for that decision. You'll then be in a better position to decide if you can do anything about it, and if so, how. If you can't do it on your own, talk to other people. The great thing about school is that you have the school gate conversations. A lot of people don't feel connected with their neighbourhood until their child starts going to school, and suddenly it opens up a whole network of people. There's always somebody who knows something you don't. Find out who does what at school level. Some decisions are made by councils or at county level, or at London level, perhaps by the Mayor, and nationally, by parliament or government. As an opposition backbench MP I'm often just an influencer with little power, but I can explain to people how they might want to go about dealing with their problem. It may help to have me involved. Parents may need to go and see a councillor or write to a public body or set up a petition. Most mums and dads are able to access the internet and can Google search to see if there's already a petition, and Parentkind members may well have their own networks where they can find answers to questions.
Our Annual Parent Survey 2018 had some stark findings on mental health. What are your thoughts about the mental health crisis in young people?
It may not of course be an indicator of school, as anxiety or other conditions may be present in a child irrespective of school. But all schools need to be aware of children's different needs, and not make the situation worse. An example may be how schools responded differently to the pressure of SATs. Finally, the Department for Education has recognised that and taken the pressure off on Year 6 SATs. But in an ideal world, schools should be able to recognise problems, have strategies, and certainly bullying strategies, and make sure all staff, children and parents are aware of them, and believe the child when they report that they are being bullied. I know of schools that don't have a bullying problem and others that do. But one child may have a problem with bullying even at a school that doesn't have that reputation. Social media has massively exacerbated the bullying, and there are also issues about how our children are using social media and how much time they are spending on their phones and iPads. It was worrying to hear from one parent today that the welfare support in her school has been withdrawn because of cuts just at a time in which it needs to be there.
Can you tell us a bit about supporting the network of parents in Chiswick who campaign to protect children from harmful levels of air pollution - the Clean Air Parents' Network?
It's been wonderful working with the parents at the two schools involved because they've not only recognised the problem but done something about it, and with backing from the schools. At most schools, when you arrive before the morning bell rings, parents leave their kids in the playground. The head's stopped that; they go straight into their classrooms to keep them away from the morning rush hour traffic pollution, which is even higher than it is during the rest of the day. Parents are working at a local level to help solve the problems as best they can with humidifiers and a green wall. They are working with me and Transport for London on local campaigning, and I'm taking their stories into parliament to try and get better laws on air pollution, and I worry that with Brexit, the government will relax air quality standards at a time when they need to be tightened. The more we know about the impact of air pollution on children's development and short and long-term health, the more we realise it's a crisis. We shouldn't wait until 2040 to phase out fossil fuel vehicles, it should be 2030 as some other countries have suggested. The government has to fund that.
For more about Ruth Cadbury MP, including how to get in touch if you are a parent in her constituency, see RuthCadbury.org.