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Paper for peace in our schools?;Governors

The Government wants all schools to have written home-school agreements. In the first of a two-part series, Victoria Neumark looks at the history.

"There is," says home-school agreement specialist John Bastiani, "rock-solid evidence that co-operation between parents and school leads to academic progress. Conversely, if we look at the 200 schools currently under special measures, most have weak relations with the families of their students."

So it's not surprising that home-school agreements are the Government's flavour of the moment. But it is perhaps more surprising that responsibility for establishing and enforcing them is to devolve to governors, courtesy of the School Standards and Framework Bill currently going through Parliament.

It's scarcely 12 years since governors were given much say in running their schools. Now they are to be intimately concerned in building relationships in the whole-school community. Although a pioneering Royal Society of ArtsNational Association of Head Teachers project Willing Partnership reported encouraging results from its 20 pilot schools in 1989-91, the title of John Bastiani's follow-up report, Home-school contracts and agreements - opportunity or threat? sums up many governors' feelings.

The idea has been taken up with dizzying speed. The last government embraced formal home-school agreements in a climate of moral panic, beginning with the Bulger murder in 1993 and building with rising numbers of disputed exclusions. Defeated clauses in the 1996 Education Act would have insisted that parents sign home-school contracts when accepting a place for their children. New Labour took the idea to its bosom in 1997's election campaign trumpeting the virtues of parental responsibility against the vices of juvenile crime and disorder.

Many governors worry about formalising home-school involvement in a document sanctioned by the governing body and signed by head, parents and pupils. Some concerns - what will be the status of such an agreement, how will it be enforced? - are addressed in the Bill, which states that such agreements are "not legal contracts". Others, such as how governors will decide the school's aims and values, responsibilities and expectations, as well as insist on responsibilities of parents, are causing great anxiety.

John Bastiani, co-ordinator of the National Home-School Development Group, has been jokingly called "Mr Home-School" since running the RSANAHT project in 198991. When he spoke at a conference on home-school agreements run by Tower Hamlets' Working with Parents Consortium last month, he was unenthusiastic about the Bill proposals. He says: "If you asked me to write down 10 things that would immeasurably increase home-school involvement, written agreements wouldn't be one of them."

He feels that lessons from the RSA pilot point to a more complex solution to the problem of low-achieving children from non-co-operative families. Throughout the country, groups like the WWPC are developing different forms of home-school liaison. Boroughs like Hackney and Coventry have paid workers who focus on reaching out and drawing in parents. Their experience and that of schools (see below) who run successful agreements underlines an important truth: a piece of paper cannot deliver improved standards.

Signing such a document may well have symbolic value for all parties. Many schools can reasonably hope to achieve real agreements with most of their families, particularly if they are regularly monitored and reviewed as the Bill proposes. But wouldn't these families support the school anyway?

Barrie Wyse, who ran such an agreement in an inner-city comprehensive in Hull (see below), sees benefits from the process of building home-school agreements.

Dr Roger Hancock, research associate at the University of Greenwich, says a positive atmosphere, a climate of respect, clear expectations, will ensure that "the great majority of parents are willing partners". But for those with difficulties, and those from bilingual families, home-school agreements, "might be, paradoxically, part of the problem because they are seen as the answer", as Ian Morgan, head of King's Park School, Bournemouth, warns (see below).

Next week: How will bilingual families and pupils with special educational needs fare with home-school agreements?

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