How best to change parents into partners?

Partnership is one of the key words in the education White Paper, and one of the most important partnerships in education is that between schools and parents. But the relationship between the teachers and the families of schoolchildren is still very undeveloped, and may be full of awkwardness.

In Britain recently, teachers shockingly identified "talking to parents" as a major waste of time in their job, according to a survey by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers .

In many countries, teachers remain suspicious of parental interference - yet the fact that families and schools are both closely involved in children's development, and would achieve more if they worked more closely together, is becoming more widely understood. This is especially true of governments, who are beginning to emphasise the role of the parent in education.

In Paris, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has just published a report which looks at parental involvement in schooling in nine different countries. During 1996, when I was working for the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, I led the team which carried out this research.

The countries involved were Canada, Denmark, England and Wales, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Spain and the United States - all of which have very different policies and practice when it comes to seeing parents as partners in education, What is seen as routine in one country may be unheard of in another - and unfamiliar types of parental involvement can be seen as very threatening by teachers.

It became clear that there are three factors which combine to make the interlocking roles of family, community and school more widely recognised. Education, in all countries, is becoming ever more important, and the assumption now is that most people will have to keep learning throughout their lives.

Parental support and involvement in their children's education is often associated with higher achievement. And, at the same time, there is a general trend towards offering parents more choice of school and making schools more accountable to them.

In some countries, parents see their involvement as a democratic right; in France, Germany and Denmark it has been a legal entitlement for decades.In Britain, Canada and the United States, there have been recent efforts to make schools more responsive to the demands and wishes of parents - and taxpayers.

How far parents are genuinely accepted as partners varies a great deal from country to country. Most of them are strong in some aspects of parental involvement, but rather weak in others. Governments tend to push the idea to different degrees at different levels of the system - whether at national level, or in the schools themselves.

Legislation, of course can only achieve a limited amount when it comes to real partnership - but it can encourage participation. Parents can be given the legal right to form parents' associations based on the school; they can be given a wider choice of school (although complete freedom of choice is never possible without retaining an uneconomic number of empty places within the system); and schools can be required to furnish parents with certain kinds of information - as is the case in England and Wales.

In Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland and Spain, parents sit on important policy-making committees - at national level or in local government. In Canada, several provinces have recently set up parent advisory committees, and in the US some states have parents represented on the advisory committees of district school boards.

In contrast, parents in England and Wales and Japan are not routinely represented at national or local level - although in Britain the recent White Paper proposes that one parent should be co-opted on to the education committee of each local authority.

In the schools themselves, the degree of parent participation varies a great deal. Recent OECD research in 12 countries suggests that 57 per cent of primary pupils attend schools in which parents participate in financial or organisational decisions. About one in four attends a school where parents have influence over staffing.

The extent to which parents are active as school governors differs a great deal, since not all countries treat schools as autonomous units. In Germany, Japan and France, for example, individual schools do not have governing bodies. In Denmark, Ireland and Spain, on the other hand, schools are seen as more autonomous, and their governing bodies, on which parents sit, have a real influence. The process is probably most advanced in England and Wales, where the governors of schools are responsible for making virtually all the non-curricular decisions for their schools.

In almost all the countries in the study, there are national parents' associations of various kinds. They are not compulsory in any of the nine countries - although most governments have begun to encourage them. Some of these organisations are of long standing and - in France and Japan in particular - are an important part of the local political establishment. Politicians in these countries sometimes make their name through the parents' association.

In Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland and Spain, members of parents' associations are expected to sit on national policy-making committees, but in Britain this does not happen - although the government often consults the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations.

One of the most influential forms of parent participation at the school level is the class council - which in Denmark, France, Germany and Spain are very common, but which are barely known in other countries. The usual structure is straightforward; all the parents of the children in a class have regular meetings with each other and with the teacher to discuss future developments, problems, and events. In Denmark where teachers often stay with the same class until the children are 14 or so, parents and teachers get to know each other well, and parents often have a powerful voice in many aspects of school life.

As well as the involvement of parents as a group, there is a wide variety of participation by individual parents, especially in the primary classroom - either as an unskilled helper or as a teacher's aide.

This kind of partnership, which is well-established in England and Wales, is highly controversial in many countries. Both teachers and children can benefit from such co-operation - but it is clear that some countries, such as France and Japan, have effective education systems with virtually no input of this kind.

The importance of parents helping their children at home is now undisputed. OECD figures collected in 12 countries suggest that about three-quarters of primary pupils go to schools which regularly engage parents in actively supporting their children's learning at home. Parents may be asked to hear their children read aloud, or to sign a notebook when their homework has been completed. Some schools encourage parents to take their children to the public library and show them how to search for information. In some countries, evening workshops at the school explain to parents how they can support their children.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of the research is that the most successful examples of co-operation between parents and schools involve mutual respect, with individual teachers and parents learning how to negotiate with each other, handle differences of opinion and understand each other's role. Training sessions - especially when parents and teachers train together - are very helpful in establishing this working relationship. A clear legal framework which sets out rights and responsibilities is also important.

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