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Contracts could be the ties that bind

Home-school links are hardly revolutionary, but as a general election nears, this well-respected partnership is set for renewed scrutiny.

The home-school "contract" is now on the lips of every other politician. Prime Minister John Major gave it his blessing last month, and the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, has hinted that contracts might be used to choose pupils for selective schools.

Labour, not to be outdone by the Conservatives, declared that it had first advocated contracts in 1988. And a swift response also came from the Liberal Democrats, who said partnership was the key, not "heavy-handed" contracts.

It is the National Association of Head Teachers, however, which claims to have pioneered such formal links. In 1988, it published an example of one school's contract, and four years later entered into a pilot project with the Royal Society of Arts.

A home-school contract sets out schools' and parents' expectations. Each side commits itself to responsibilities, such as regular information from the school about performance, and helpful attitudes from parents towards school work.

The NAHT is to meet Labour soon to discuss a wide range of education issues, and home-school contracts will be a priority. Labour says it wants written contracts for every school, parent and pupil.

In Excellence for Everyone: Labour's Crusade to Raise Standards, published last December, the party says: "Contracts will improve parental expectations and help to support children at school. They will assist parental involvement in their child's education, help to combat truancy and improve discipline and develop an ethos which links families and schools closer together."

But in the NAHT-Royal Society of Arts pilot, at least one parent was unconvinced that the contract would add anything to her relationship with Archbishop Thurstan school in Hull. She finally signed the document because she did not wish to be seen as awkward, but said: "It's what I would have been doing anyway." Indeed, the success of home-school links at the Hull school is why the parent felt a signature was unnecessary.

Contracts can also be a mixed blessing, as education consultant John Bastiani says in a pamphlet published by the RSA.

Although strongly favouring family-school links, he lists four potential problems: * Strengthening parental rights can be divisive by turning parents into "vigilantes"; * Involving parents can become a way of shoring up an underfunded public education service; * Home-school links risk giving advantages to parents who need them least, and further widens the gap between them and the rest; * Families and schools are very different institutions, so conflict between them is inevitable.

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