Scotland could do worse than pay homage to Catalonia and experiment with parent contacts in every nursery and primary class to help raise standards, the secretary-general of the Catalan parents' association says.
The Scottish Office has established links with its Iberian counterpart in the build-up to the opening of the Scottish parliament and Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, promised to extend the liaison to parent groups when he addressed a European parents conference in the capital. It was the first education conference during Britain's presidency of the European Union.
Victor Guillen-Preckler, full-time official with Fapel, the Catalan parent organisation, urged Mr Wilson to back the use of contact parents to help reach the large number of parents who avoid anything to do with schools.
Mr Wilson, who is testing the waters with Labour's pre-election proposal to have "parent advocates" as a bridge between school and home, said: "We are interested in exploring whether a more structured system, such as the class contact system which operates in various places, could operate here. Another option is a system where an independent person, sometimes referred to as a parent advocate or facilitator, takes on a role on behalf of parents."
Around 100 primary schools in the grant-maintained and voluntary sector in Catalonia have experimented with contact parents over the past 10 years and many more throughout Spain. The system is also popular in Norway. Mr Guillen-Preckler said: "It is important to begin with small children at three or four years old in nursery school. Parents, usually mothers, meet when they collect their children and spontaneously they talk. That is the most natural way."
In any class of 25 children, half a dozen parents are prepared to be actively involved, another 10 might come to meetings and the rest have no interest in going near the school. One or two of the more active parents could be trained as contacts to befriend others. "Instead of going through the headteacher, which is very official and comes from authority, it is better if these parents try to meet other parents and help them come to the school. The first time they may go for a cup of tea and give them confidence," Mr Guillen-Preckler said.
He added: "Many times it is a success, sometimes it is a failure. Everything depends on the people who are going to do it and finding the right people. It works best when it is informal and friendly."
Parents sometimes rejected the appeals from contacts if they took the wrong approach. "The aim is the participation of all parents to raise the quality of education and to help children to succeed in school and not to drop out. It is very important to have this partnership," Mr Guillen-Preckler said.
In his conference address, Mr Wilson said he was continuing to investigate home-school agreements, which have already been developed in some schools. "As well as outlining rights and responsibilities, they might also include attainment targets for pupils. These in turn might link in with school targets, being introduced here as part of our drive to raise standards in schools," he said.
Estelle Morris, schools minister at the Department for Education and Employment, said parents in England would be required to sign agreements on rights and responsibilities. Attendance, discipline and homework would be included, but the contracts would not be legally enforceable.
Alison Kirby, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said signed contracts were a "non-starter" in Scotland and parents across Europe were against imposed home-school agreements. "The Government is going down the wrong line. This should be done by consensus, not by force," Mrs Kirby said.
Better dialogue between schools and parents would be more productive than the formal approach. "We need to get at the generality of parents and the best thing would be for schools to have more time to speak to parents," she added.