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Contracts may be a lawyers' charter

Home-school contracts, trailed by the Tories as a means of improving pupil discipline, came under fire from the leader of Scotland's parents this week.

Alison Kirby, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, told a conference in Edinburgh that contracts would be "legalistic, confrontational and counter-productive". She suggested instead an informal "partnership statement" in which schools set out their aims and what parents could do to help. Parents should be given the name of a home-link teacher or staff member as the first point of contact.

The White Paper Raising the Standard had proposed legally binding contracts as a way of dealing with indiscipline and managing the exclusion process. But Mrs Kirby says such contracts would do little to cement the broad relationship between parents and schools, and might lead to disputes over the fine print.

She was addressing what was billed as the first education conference in Scotland on "conflict resolution ", run by Edinburgh City Council. The council's education department is the only one with an advice and conciliation service, inherited from Lothian Region, to handle complaints from the public.

Liz Reid, the city's director of education, said: "The problem is that education has grown up as a broad service for the mass of the population, yet now faces growing expectations from more and more people to provide an individualised service. Inevitably, this generates tensions and conflict."

Deirdre Hutton, chair of the Scottish Consumer Council, warned that parents often did not know what it was appropriate to complain about. "Sometimes they can spend a lot of time complaining about the less important things when they should be concentrati ng on more important matters."

Mrs Hutton said: "The benefit for the school is that if a complaint is well handled, it gets parents on your side. If one is badly handled, the parents will tell eight or nine other people how awful the school is. Grumbles about a school can spread like wildfire, justified or not."

Parents could be used as a barometer of quality so that, for example, the common charge that they are not told quickly enough if their child has a learning difficulty could prompt a review of internal reporting systems.

Mrs Hutton and Mrs Kirby agreed that parents' minimum expectation is that a complaint will be treated seriously. But Mrs Kirby added: "Parents tend not to think about what they expect of education until the unexpected happens."

Teachers needed training to help defuse explosive situations arising from "angry, rude and aggressive" complaints, Mrs Hutton said.

Edinburgh plans similar seminars. The aim was "to set new standards of service and accountability", Elizabeth Maginnis, the council's education convener, said.

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