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Quality begins at home

The new home-school agreements don't need to be a burden. Karen Thornton reports on how one London borough aims to extend them and build a partnership with parents to raise standards

WITH SOME schools still in the process of introducing home-school agreements, it may seem premature to talk about reviewing them.

But in north London, Barnet's education officers want to build on existing agreements - to further strengthen partnership with parents and raise pupil achievement.

The agreements - obligatory since last September - set out the roles and responsibilities of schools and parents, and the school's expectations of pupils. Governors must consult all

parents about them, take all reasonable steps to get everyone signed up, and review them from time to time.

But the documents are not legally binding, and children cannot be disciplined if they or their parents breach the agreement.

To help schools, Barnet developed a "home-school audit" kit, which uses a questionnaire to discover parents' perceptions of schools.

Other tools the borough has used include a game designed to establish who (ie parents or teachers) should be responsible for different aspects of child development (see below).

The aim is to go beyond current home-school agreements and truly involve parents in their child's schooling.

The audit questionnaire is based on Alexander, Bastiani amp; Beresford's Home-School Policies - A Practical Guide (JET Publications, price pound;15.95 including pamp;p, tel 01159 845960), and was developed by Barnet's Rosemary Little and Trisha Smith.

The questionnaire asks how parents feel their child has settled in, if the child enjoys school, how parents rate itsl communications, if they feel they can approach teachers, and if they feel the school helps them to help their child's learning.

Research has shown that involving parents in their children's education can improve achievement. But it has also been noted that parents can only be effective partners if professionals take notice of what they say, says Ms Little.

"The questionnaire identifies the strengths and weaknesses of communications with parents, and enables schools to develop policies to support improvement - for example, working more closely with parents on reading," she says.

The questionnaire is sent to every parent, and results are entered onto a database. The Barnet team advises that parent-

governors take the lead ole in analysing the audit, with chairs feeding results back to teachers.

Parent governor Mervyn Bekhor found the questionnaire results gave a particularly usefulguide to the different communities and home languages of pupils at Christ's College, a multi-cultural secondary in Finchley. The school used the questionnaire to help develop its home-school agreement.

"I would recommend it to other schools. It helps discipline your thoughts," he said.

Parent-governors can also take the lead on other tools such as the "dialogue" game, which was developed at Glasgow university.

The game involves governors, parents, teachers and other staff debating a series of statements about what should be expected of pupils of a certain age. They then decide who is responsible for ensuring that, for example, an 11-year-old has consideration for other people's property.

Oakleigh special school, also in Barnet, used the game to help produce its home-school agreement. Deputy head Lynn Bhania believes it will prove a handy tool for reviewing the agreement in the future.

"Playing the game every couple of years is good for parent-school links - it's a way of getting into a dialogue. It structures the debate, and you can look at a wider context than you can in day-to-day communications with parents," she said.

"It's very good to think - just whose responsibility is this? What was interesting was we found most were the responsibility of both parents and school - hardly any were one or the other."

Oakleigh parent-governor Paul Lonsdale said governors weren't sure what to expect at first, but said the responses were fascinating - and the game was also good fun.

Rosemarie Little said the education authority was promoting the audit kit for reviewing policies. She added: "The audit is just the start of developing consultation with parents.

"The governing body has a crucial role in fostering parental links in that the new legislation places a responsibility on the governing body for the development of a home-school agreement and to ensure its annual review.

"One participant said it sends out a very important message to parents indicating the value of their views and opinions, and shows that they are real parties in their child's education."

Further information available from Rosemarie Little, care of the professional development centre, 451 High Road, Finchley, London N12 0AS, telephone 0181 359 3988.

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