Contract or potential con trick?

Will home-school agreements restore discipline in schools or impose unfair conditions on parents? Susan Young reports. The Government's much-vaunted home-school contracts appear, at best, likely to prove an irrelevance. At worst, the plans - highlighted by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard in her speech to the Conservative party conference last week - could harm relations between schools and parents.

The Government sees home-school contracts, now called agreements, as a vote-winner and is to include them in its Education Bill this autumn. Unfortunately the results may be too soft and legally unenforceable for the hardliners and too prescriptive for the home-school movement, some of whose ideas the Government has borrowed and beefed up.

Heads are the only people likely to be satisfied by allowing schools to use contracts as part of the admissions criteria. The legislation is unlikely to appeal to anyone else, least of all those groups who have campaigned for home-school partnerships to become widespread but not compulsory.

Concerns centre upon the possible link with admissions, the difficulty of enforcing the contracts and their dubious legal status. There are also fears that schools might impose too much on parents, to the disadvantage of particular groups.

Worries about the sort of contract the Government had in mind were fuelled by the example published with the latest Citizen's Charter. That contract made many demands on parents, including specifying time to be spent on homework and ensuring that their child belonged to at least two school clubs.

Labour is sitting on the fence and waiting to see the details of the Bill.

The legislation may reflect John Major's interest in the idea, which he floated in a TVinterview in January. Although Mrs Shephard was echoing his sentiments in a speech the following day, her ministers were denying any plans earlier this summer - just before the publication of a circular which for the first time allowed contratcts to be used in admissions criteria in oversubscribed schools.

The DFEE does insist that the sins of the parents should not be visited on the pupils: schools will not be able to exclude children because their parents have reneged on the agreement. Moreover, if parents are unable to find a school for their child because they will not sign an agreement, the local authority will be obliged to step in - thus, perhaps, forcing schools to take children without contracts.

The National Association of Head Teachers, which has been campaigning for contracts, is happy that they will be enforced by legislation but wanted a more limited version than the Government's.

Rowie Shaw, director of professional services, said heads wanted parents to sign up to the school's disciplinary code as a condition of admission. If it came to an exclusion hearing, schools which had followed correct procedures could also prove that parents could not plead ignorance of the rules. Any further agreement between pupils, parents and the school could then be negotiated.

Pleased though the NAHT is to have got the means to make parents sign up to school rules, the wider implications of the Government's decision are causing worries.

Alan Parker, education officer for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said councils had decided not to create waves about the agreements idea largely because it was linked to other parts of the Government's new disciplinary policies which could improve procedure on exclusions.

"It's a mess," he said. Most authorities would cave in and direct a school to take a child, regardless of whether a contract had been signed, if a parent was threatening a European legal battle. This could be on the grounds that the parent whose conscience would not allow them to agree to a contract was entitled to have the child educated according to his or her beliefs.

The Advisory Centre for Education has also warned that contracts would be legally unenforceable. Andy Dorn, of ACE, said that even if they were not one-sided, it was not possible to work in a meaningful "penalty clause".

"What is coming out of the Government, the Labour party and the unions is nothing to do with parental involvement, it is to do with compliance," said Mr Dorn.

John Bastiani, a consultant on home-school partnerships, is equally dismayed by the Government's plans, which are opposed to the "evolutionary" model of agreements he prefers. "It's a bit like the 1990s version of selection by parental interview. What evidence we have suggests that schools are over-impressed by parents who look like them, dress like them, are going to help the kids and get them all the right books and contribute to the funds. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to work out how schools would respond to parents who expressed differences of expectation or view."

Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, is even blunter. "These contracts are going to throw thousands of children out on the streets. And then people are going to be asking: why is my house being broken into? Why is my car being vandalised?"

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