The schools that are getting the best out of children have invariably the strongest home-school links, said consultant John Bastiani. They provide regular accessible information about the life and work of the school, offering a range of opportunities for parents and carers to discuss children's development and enlisting their active support to reinforce their children's learning.
"There seems to be a shift towards getting school into the home, enlisting regular support for classroom learning and suggesting joint activities for adults and kids to do together," he said.
Schools should create a sense of common purpose, making parents feel not just welcome but needed, he advised, but warned against shifting the balance too much and "putting more pressure on parents by expecting them to be involved in their children's education, like extensions of school classrooms."
Dr Bastiani emphasised the importance of early links with families. He said the Bookstart project in England, which gave books to every seven-month-old child, is paying off. The first children to benefit are now in P3 and there is a lot of evidence that the project gave them a head start. "Children who had early reading difficulties didn't have Bookstart experience," he said.
The Basic Skills Agency's family literacy programme in England and Wales for children and their parents, using early years teachers and adult education workers, found the long-term benefits of families learning together include an increase in parents' and children's confidence. "One characteristic of children's progress, if you are involving parents, is that it lasts well," said Dr Bastiani. Children were tested after six months and three years, and the gains were holding up.
Quoting the report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (1996), Dr Bastiani said: "It is surprising how often parents comment on the improved relationships that come from working with their children. The one-to-one is the vital thing. Other brothrs and sisters want to muscle in, and the parents were better able to communicate with the children's teachers."
In Scotland, Dr Bastiani has been involved in evaluating SHARE, a research project with five to seven-year-olds in North and South Lanarkshire, which brought parents into school regularly and accredited the work they were doing with their child. There was also a lot of enthusiasm for involving grandparents and other members of the community.
In working with parents, it is important for schools to recognise the changing nature of the family, said Dr Bastiani. He cited a stepfamily project in which children's drawings had been "hugely revealing", with one child drawing her extended family with mum and dad and their new partners and saying: "My family's not broken, it's working". As a result of that project, school secretaries started to use software which can sensitively handle family variations.
Of the parents who split up, in 85 per cent of cases the father moves out but, Dr Bastiani said, there is "a surprising number of blokes who do their best to keep in touch with schools on a day to day basis".
Stressing the importance of home-school link workers, he said English workers invariably had teaching backgrounds and "good street cred" in classrooms and were integrated into the life and work of the school, but they had little street cred with families.
Scottish workers, by contrast, generally have teaching backgrounds and are appointed because they have other skills. They often have excellent street cred with families but face problems trying to get into schools and be involved in training days.
"We have to have a model," he said, "that weakens some of the obvious limitations while preserving the strengths of each."
Dr Bastiani urged school managers to ensure that the rhetoric about "the rights of the child" is put into practice. "We know a lot about what works in terms of parent-friendly and family-friendly schools. But so much home-school practice is still third parties talking about small people above their heads. We can do more by involving kids."
Schools also had to seek out the hard-to-reach parents to make the system fairer and more equal. "If we develop this area half-heartedly, we just make opportunities available to a small proportion of parents," Dr Bastiani said.