Class wars continue

WHEN Professor Brian Cooke was elected vice-chairman of the English Schools Foundation last December, he said the troubled group's first task was to overcome the problems of the last two years and ''do something about building image, confidence and trust''. It would be surprising if Professor Cooke were able to claim complete success as yet.

It will take longer than two months to sweep away the bitterness and distrust between management, teachers and parents that built up in the battle to remove the controversial former chief executive Mr Maurice Millard and the subsequent row over his $4.35 million ''golden handshake''.

Nonetheless, the ESF made a start before Christmas by producing a solution to another long-running dispute at Clearwater Bay School. The removal of two senior teachers to other posts was greeted with general relief by parents.

Sadly there is a sense that the atmosphere elsewhere at the ESF has soured rather than sweetened recent weeks. To an extent, this may be a reflection of shifting allegiances. Some of the parents who supported the teachers in their efforts to unseat Mr Millard, and felt their demands had been ignored by the management for too long, now feel neglected by an alliance of teachers, school principals and executive.

The grievance has developed over a relatively minor issue, the length of the school day for primary students, but it sums up the frustration of the parents. They claims that the ESF Executive Committee is so heavily weighted in favour of the staff, that parental concerns are easily overridden or ignored.

On the other side of the argument are those who say that if parents want to have a greater say in the management of the ESF, they should be ready to show their interest and take part in parent-teacher activities. That criticism might have struck home in the past. Even now there is a silent majority that does not regularly make its views known, and believes its children's education is best left in the hands of the professionals.

However, the higher than usual attendance at Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meetings where the school-hours debate has been aired shows parents are indeed taking that advice to heart, and may be becoming more politicised in the process.

Despite the high government subsidies to the ESF system, parents are asked to fork out increasingly heavy fees for an education which, though undoubtedly good, is now being questioned on its value-for-money rating. Families who have to save hard to afford such fees - there is no alternative English-language education system available except through even more expensive international schools - are quick to express dissatisfaction if the ESF appears to take little notice of their views.

Even those whose fees are met by their employers have a right to know that the money is being spent for the benefit of their children and not, as some parents have begun to allege, for the greater convenience of the staff.

Opinion has been split about whether the adoption of ''continental'' school hours would harm the children's education, and deprive them of the time to socialise outside the confines of the family home or give them greater freedom to play outside school.

However, if the executive is so sure that the silent majority is on its side, what is to prevent it putting the matter to a referendum rather than assume that the views of activists do not represent the majority?