Home-school agreements should not be used by politicians as "blunt instruments to beat unsuspecting parents into submission", a conference organised by the Royal Society for the Arts was told this week.
John Bastiani, director of the RSA's project on parents in a learning society, said agreements should provide a framework for continuing discussion about what parents, pupils and teachers could expect from each other.
He warned against regarding home-school agreements as a panacea and ridiculed the "Monty Pythonesque" over-prescriptive contract stipulating parental obligation down to the last detail, such as maintaining a well-stocked pencil case.
However, Dr Bastiani thought that agreements could act as a catalyst to raise the profile of home-school relations and produce healthy ways of working with families.
Birmingham chief education officer Tim Brighouse, an education adviser to the Labour front bench, dismissed home-school contracts legislation as a "gut reaction by politicians to what the Victorians called a moral panic", a state which was fuelled by the media, he added. His authority pioneered compacts with teachers and parents agreeing to a yearly learning plan.
As children spend only 20 per cent of their time in school, he called for education authorities to earmark 2 per cent of their budgets for a curriculum for the home and community which would promote education outside school for every age group. He was particularly keen to encourage all adults to commit themselves to lifelong learning.
Peter Downes, head of Hinchinbrooke secondary school, Huntingdon, was wary of contracts as "the consumerist mentality of the last 17 years" had caused parents to be more litigious.
Many were not concerned about fostering partnerships with schools, but wanted value for money in a customer-supplier relationship. "But in schools there are too many human variables to guarantee that sort of delivery."
Pat Moss, an Oxfordshire early years development officer, wondered if there was really a need for another imposed agreement given that a school with a good community philosophy sets out its standards, attitudes and commitment in its prospectus. Parents knew what the school could offer and what would be expected of them in return, she said.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers who chaired the conference, said his organisation could claim to have initiated the idea of home-school agreements, although nobody knew how many there were or how successful they had been.
"It is unfortunate that in the past two or three weeks people have got the impression that they are only about discipline. They never have been. They are about a whole range of issues and we need to get that clear. But the people at Westminster have not got that clear."
Mr Hart wondered what would happen to parents who didn't sign a contract. Would this lead to agreements operating selectively for the odd parent? "That fills me with horror," he added.
Pearl White, head of Kates Hill primary school, Dudley in the West Midlands, stressed that agreements, pioneered in her school, must be part of a personal and social education programme.
Home-school contracts and agreements - opportunity or threat? by John Bastiani, published by the RSA, is available from Lesley James, RSA, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6EZ, price Pounds 7.50.