Connect to joined-up thinking

The big debate may turn out to have been a damp squib, but what is really needed is an active dialogue with parents, Mark Irvine argues

F the national debate we have just had turns out to have been a lofty exercise bypassing the majority of parents and young people, it will hardly have been worthwhile. While big thinking is refreshing and welcome, getting to grips with people's experiences is paramount.

Consider the everyday issue of contact between parents, teachers and schools. For most, school contact is minimal, often non-existent, until a problem occurs; occasional newsletters are as good as it gets for the rest of the year.

Scottish education likes to think of itself as a vibrant partnership, but the reality is rather different; professional interests dominate and an active dialogue with parents is largely missing.

Information technology, however, can raise home-school communication to unimagined levels with the power to transform relations between parents, teachers and schools. Good practice and creative thinking can be found where users and providers work together to look at local services from a different standpoint.

NHS patients in rural Scotland can now avoid long, uncomfortable journeys to see a consultant; new technology via a live video link provides a better use of resources. Yet, most potential lies with services that touch people's lives every day in great numbers. Attention is now turning to the vast sums spent on health, education and social work.

In schools across Scotland, the key players are disconnected from each other for most of the year; save for a few minutes at parents' evenings. Regular communication is not easy for parents or teachers with competing demands on their time. Schools provide a service when most parents are working with little flexibility outside office hours, but rearranging priorities around service users can be achieved, by looking at smarter, more efficient ways of working.

Email can transform the present state of relations, though clearly not in isolation. Small schools in Scotland are bigger than many small businesses, yet information technology is under-exploited.

Training is a practical problem, but the real issue is developing a strategy for change with parents as equal partners, directly involved in providing better all-round school support.

Most school reports are still written by hand instead of being typed on word processors. Keyboard and computer skills are valuable assets in the modern labour market, no longer the preserve of a largely female workforce of secretaries and typists. Encouraging their use would bring real benefits in future years, as well as creating a natural learning environment for children and young people.

Email is more friendly and relaxed than sending formal letters, quicker, cheaper and secure into the bargain. Potentially, the advantages are enormous. With a bit of imagination, email could improve communication on a range of issues from helping parents to understand aspects of the curriculum to managing absence effectively and providing better homework support.

Reducing the amount of paper flowing through the system would bring immediate benefits. A new regime could be used to consult parents more effectively on issues relating to their own children, year groups or classes, as well as those affecting the whole school.

The cost would be minimal and, arguably, would use resources more effectively. More importantly, parents would build up the confidence to contact teachers directly on day-to-day matters and vice versa. Personal visits and formal correspondence would still have a role, but in a modern, dynamic setting embracing new ways of working common in other walks of life.

There should be financial support for lower income families to install a home PC and Internet access. Now that would be a radical step, combining elements of social justice, enterprise and modernisation.

As for funding, why not use some of the underspend in the Scottish Executive's budget, which is becoming an annual event? Surely, there is room for manoeuvre within the massive pound;634 million left unspent by departments at the end of 2001-2002.

Mark Irvine is a freelance writer.

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