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Can a signature make it better?;Governors

In the second of two articles on home-school agreements, Victoria Neumark talks to critics of the proposals while Mark Whitehead looks at the reservations of staff working with ethnic-minority and special needs children

"Can you have both a contract and a partnership?" asks John Bastiani, a specialist on home-school liaison. Melian Mansfield, chair of the Campaign for the Advancement for State Education takes it further, asking: "Do we want relationships or documents?"

The School Standards and Framework Bill going through Parliament will make written home-school agreements mandatory for schools. Governors will have to adopt a statement specifying the school's aims and values, the school's responsibilities in connection with the education of pupils, parental responsibilities and the school's expectations of pupils' "conduct".

In addition, parents will be asked, but not required to sign a parental declaration "recording that they take note of" these aims, values, responsibilities and expectations. Governing bodies have to take "reasonable steps" to secure parental signature, unless there are circumstances in which they consider it inappropriate to do so.

All this seems heavy stuff. But it is complicated by the Bill's next section, which prohibits penalties for failure to sign the declaration, rules out using parental signature to filter pupil admission and adds: "A home-school agreement shall not be capable of creating an obligation in respect of whose breach of any liability arises in contract or in tort". The home-school agreement, then, which must be devised through a long process of consultation with parents and must be reviewed "from time to time", cannot actually be enforced.

So why is the Government so keen on written agreements? Andy Dorn, lecturer in education at Middlesex University, says: "The original notion of parental agreement has been hijacked by the unions and taken on board by New Labour as a way of controlling parents, a form of discipline." Joan Sallis adds: "It's a cheap gimmick which will satisfy no one."

Who will be the parents, wonders Dr Roger Hancock, research associate at Greenwich University, whose signature will be considered "inappropriate" to demand?

Sandra and Tracey from Southwark, two parents at a conference organised by the Tower Hamlets Working with Parents consortium, were flabbergasted to learn that that they will shortly be asked to sign a document ensuring that they will get their children to school on time, hear them read and make sure they get enough sleep to do their homework. "We do these things anyway," they pointed out. "But signing a piece of paper isn't going to make anyone do them."

Dr Hancock sees another danger for governing bodies overseeing home-school agreements. Teachers who are not easy with the difficult work needed to contact "stubborn, awkward, violent parents" may collapse all their outreach into extracting a signature. Conversely, says Joan Sallis, parents who are over-ambitious for their children may "harass" teachers by holding them to an unrealistic interpretation of the school's responsibilities.

And what of parents who are not "difficult" but have awkward profiles? Bilingual families may have problems in understanding the documents, just as they may have problems helping with school work and expressing their own special needs from the school (see below).

Mr Bastiani, author of Home-School Contracts and Agreements - Opportunity or Threat? (RSA) says a culture of deference (to authority, to education) may lead some to sign documents which they would like to question - yet an enforced or blind signature negates the whole basis of such agreements, that of laying out how there are differing expectations in the triangle of home-school-pupil which everyone needs to examine.

Parents of children with special needs are especially likely to feel they are getting a raw deal, says Ms Mansfield (see below). If schools fall down on their duties, as experience has shown that they may, there is no way for parents to demand their rights: the agreement is not a charter. If parents, on the other hand, do not live up to their declaration, they may well be susceptible to pressure. Some parents, says Andy Dorn, will "self-exclude when they see a contract".

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the proposals is that pupils' signature is optional, at the discretion of the governing body. Yet all the research, from the original Royal Society of ArtsNational Association of Head Teachers project Willing Partnership (1989-91) onwards, shows that pupils' commitment is vital to the success of home-school agreement.

As governing bodies face another gruelling addition to their duties, many will agree with Dr Hancock, that "The whole idea is a bad idea."

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