Home-school contracts need the law's backing

In the whirlwind of competing promises that batter the pre-election public, an occasional common theme emerges. Even in education, purportedly a main battleground between the parties, there can be a measure of agreement. In the 1987 campaign, all four parties suggested a change to existing school councils so that there would be one per school. Returned to office, the Conservatives took up the idea but put an unfortunate spin on it, suggesting for the nascent school boards a range of powers they did not want and which led the other parties to oppose legislation they might otherwise have blessed.

This time there is a growing consensus on the need to bind parents more closely to their children's school. Labour talks of a compact that would accompany pupils throughout their school years. The Government is attracted to ways in which parents would have to take greater responsibility for their offspring. In an interview this week Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, said that in cases of extreme indiscipline parents could be asked to sign a legally binding contract, guaranteeing better behaviour or accepting transfer to another school.

Mr Robertson went on to say that legislation was possible, but that a decision to invoke the law would not be taken immediately. Research on discipline has recently been published. Consultation on ways of involving parents is under way. The White Paper on Raising the Standard states that there are "varying forms" of contracts.

Labour's emphasis in Building Scotland's Future is on the contribution a compact would make to "maximising the potential of every boy and girl". The Government starts with a perspective on discipline. But revealingly both parties refer to parent responsibilities, which would sit alongside a statement of rights. At least for the Conservatives that signals a change from the days when parent power was being emphasised and the home-school relationship appeared to be similar to that between a housewife and Safeway.

If there is common ethical ground, what is to stop the development of compacts? Civil service caution for a start. Ministers of either party would be warned that a compact is meaningless unless it is backed by law. Agreements already made by schools and commended in the White Paper are mainly for fifth and sixth-year pupils, that is, those whose attendance is voluntary. The statutory years when parents have legal responsibility for education pose all sorts of problems which voluntary agreements avoid.

Teachers, too, will worry that far from encouraging a sense of parental responsibility, legal compacts will make home-school relations more difficult, especially in deprived areas. Already heads have to face aggrieved middle-class parents who turn up with the family lawyer in tow.

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