I once interviewed 104 parents in their homes. Hearing directly from parents, for anything up to three hours, their hopes and fears for their own children's future, was literally life-changing. Even parents said to be uninterested asked lots of questions. So I am in favour of involving them, but it depends how it is done.
A recent review of research by Professor Charles Desforges of Exeter University shows that it is mainly what parents actually do at home that can make a difference. Parents' meetings are useful, but if they do not lead to action, they are largely wasted. Mothers tend to do most of the support work at home. We did a large-scale project a few years ago and found that three-quarters of mothers read with children aged five to seven, but only half of fathers. In the seven to 11 age group it was half of mothers, but only a quarter of fathers. One useful investment of time, therefore, is trying to persuade more dads to work with their children.
Parents also need to know how to help. What do you do if a child reads "boot" instead of "book"? Many parents have no idea what the options are, or what a teacher might do in such circumstances. Parents often say, "They don't do it like we did it at school" and therefore stay well away from maths, science, and other fields. Time spent giving parents hands-on experience of what their children actually do in class is again time well spent.
Politicians sometimes play the parent card because they know parents are voters and there are more than 10 million of them. Schools can treat parents as partners instead, a much healthier relationship, and one more likely to make an impact.
Parents are the primary educators Ruth Kelly says things because she can. It is a soundbite. It is spin and is part of the blame agenda. New Labour has still got to be tough and drive the reform agenda. They named and shamed schools and teachers. Then, so they tell us, they did things with punchy names to schools and teachers that could only make them better. Results haven't improved, so someone else needs to be blamed. Hence, we get "parental involvement". If only these layabout parents would do more to help their children, then targets would be reached.
The truth is that parents, as a group, are actually more actively involved in their children's formal education than they ever were. But individuals within the group are negligent and it is they who need to be encouraged, supported and, in some cases, called to account. It is also true that since the human race as a species evolved, parents have been the prime educators of their children. They are tremendously successful at this and have been for millennia.
Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow
Authorities need parent advisers
As well as parental involvement at school level - parent helpers, parent governors and, most importantly, parents supporting their children's learning (lots of research supports this being the single most effective indicator and improvement factor in learning) - there is also a serious intent to enhance the opportunities for parents to contribute as partners and stakeholders in decisions about education at various levels. Each local authority has between three and five parent representatives who contribute to scrutiny of local decisions about education. They are called parent governor representatives (PGRs) and they represent all parents, not just governors (www.pgrnet.org.uk).
There are currently vacancies for two parent representatives (they must be serving parent governors to qualify) to sit as members of the General Teaching Council England, involved in both their advisory and regulatory work (more information www.gtce.org.uk). I've held both of these roles and can confirm that there is a definite interest in parental involvement in education in the widest sense.
Alison Fisher, GTCE parent representative and ex PGR, Kirklees