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A one-sided partnership;Talkback

Parents are quick to complain yet disinclined to offer their time, says Penny Clayton.

Back to school! But not for me. After 18 years of headship and a previous 10 in classrooms, I have made the jump into training and consultancy. It had been a successful career and I was given a wonderful send-off with kind words from the school, colleagues and the local education authority.

Yet a fortnight before the end of my "school days", I received a letter from an irate parent complaining about a class re-mix my staff had decided on to boost the learning potential of a particular year group. The parent's comments included "disgust with the proposed rearrangement", "why use the kids to fix the books?", "a deliberate ploy", "I hear you are starting a new career move, convenient you won't have to face upset friends and parents after the summer hols". There was a petition being circulated on the same theme.

At the same time, I also received a major challenge to a decision my staff had made to separate two three-year-old boys as they moved into reception. It was a decision made on educational grounds, but this did not prevent high-level meetings involving the chair of governors and a senior LEA officer.

Should we have regarded such protests as increased parent participation and welcomed the dialogue? Will home-school contracts, to be in place by September 1, mean greater parental involvement in all aspects of school life?

Parents flocked to our sports day this year, but there were no refreshments. Why not? No volunteers to run the stall. I had a battering of negative criticisms from thirsty visitors, but still no offers of help. And parent participation in the governing body? No one was even nominated to take on the post of additional parent governor because no one volunteered. At my final parent-teachers' association meeting, only the chair joined the senior management team - which meant we had to disband, inquorate and despondent.

At a presentation for colleagues in the LEA on parental involvement, I described a nine-year attempt to create a true partnership with parents - a partnership with respect on both sides, that would encourage participation in the core business of school life-learning, inform them about the curriculum and their own child's achievements, however small. I was forced to conclude that in spite of our creativity and perseverance, we had not been successful.

Looking back on these puzzling, frustrating and often distressing times as home-school contracts are put in place across the country, I am unable to understand why parents are so reluctant to help and so eager to complain. Why should staff have to work in a climate of fear? Why are professionals forced to erect barriers of jargon and mystique to protect themselves?

Why do those few peoplewho tirelessly help in schools, often completing the path to classroom assistant posts, feel they have crossed the great divide regarded by the rest of the parent body as "them", rather than "us"?

Why do parents insist on their children being placed with their best friends, declaring this to be more important than their learning, yet feel they have the right to express outrage and disgust at poor SATs results and the subsequent lowering of the school's position in the league tables? Why are there demands for more homework, yet set activities that require parental involvement are rarely tackled?

This is a reflection of the disparity between the assumptions of a government eager to please the "consumers" of education, and the everyday experience of teachers. Why is this gulf so wide when all the players - parents, carers, teachers and support assistants - all want the same for the children? I, for one, am taking the chance to try to understand it.

Penny Clayton is a freelance trainer and education management consultant

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