GOVERNORS have a clear responsibility for the new home-school agreements. Daunted by the prospect of yet more obligations, many will turn eagerly to the RSA's publication on the subject for authoritative advice. Authors John Bastiani and Barrie Wyse are pioneers in the field, with a strong belief that home-school agreements can benefit schools and pupils. But only under certain conditions.
Schools must prepare the ground thoroughly. Says Barrie Wyse: "The process itself has an intrinsic value and it's important that schools take time to carry people with it and move forward slowly and steadily.
"It can't be a bolt-on extra and it would be a shame if, now that agreements are a legal obligation, they don't grow out of how a school thinks and feels about its role. I would hope that one or more of a school's governors would be directly involved on a working party to put in place a home-school agreement, and that the whole body was regularly informed of progress."
Once the agreement is up and running, governors must not lose track of their monitoring role. "They need to be asking questions about the contract's profile and how it is being used on a day-to-day basis. If necessary, they can set up a revision process. Otherwise it is possible it will put it in place and forgetten about."
How do home-school agreements actually work in practice?
Kates Hill primary, a 460-pupil school in Dudley, in the west Midlands, introduced its agreement - then known as the more legal-sounding "contract" - in l99l as one aspect of a policy which aimed to encourage a three-way partnership between home, school and child. Other measures included home visits; family days; dual-language documents; curriculum workshops; and courses and workshops for parents.
The school was concerned that, though anxious for their children to succeed, many of its parents were not being drawn into school activities.
Poorly-attended formal parents' evenings were replaced at the beginning of each school year with parentchildteacher interviews focused on the home-school agreement. A full-time home-school liaison worker now follows up those parents who are unable to attend.
Attendance at the meetings is 95 per cent. Virtually all parents or, if appropriate, a carer or sibling, agree to sign the document, which is then reviewed in February.
It is a time-intensive process for teachers; the school has organised training workshops which seek to improve teachers' listening skills and ability to develop rapport. The agreement, says Alaine Fendek, a co-opted governor, "keeps the school on its toes and focused on its aims. It is important that governors make sure that the contract does not make for stress, but is supportive of parents, teachers and pupils: that it's in ordinary language and, is, of course, translated where necessary into minority languages".
Apart from general aims - for example: "The school aims to ensure that each child achieves hisher full potential in a safe and happy environment" - the agreement refers to specific events. Examples of these include: "The school will organise open house, shared reading and parents' workshops" and "The family will attend open house, shared reading and parents' workshops when possible".
The agreement sets one or two individual targets for children, such as reading levels, which parents, pupil and teacher may discuss and agree, and which both schools and family undertake to help the child to achieve.
Archbishop Thurstan community school in Hull, an 850-pupil comprehensive in an outer-city council estate, introduced its agreement in the early 1990s. It was not a governors' initiative says Christine Rablen, chair of the governors, but arose from the school's "parents in partnership" group, made up mainly of teachers and parents, the educational welfare officer, and herself as an interested governor.
The group took a year to finalise the document. Members began by discussing issues such as communications with parents, bullying and complaints and later moved on to an agreement. They worked with teachers, parents and pupils, and sent questionnaires to pupils and parents.
"We had to work out the essence of what the school is trying to do and make sure that the whole school had ownership," she says. "We also had to ensure that the language was friendly and that we were asking things of the parents which were in their gift."
Writing the document is only the beginning. How can schools deliver their side of the bargain?
While primary schools like Kates Hill may be able to give agreements a high profile and a lot of individual attention, for larger secondary schools delivery is likely to be more tricky.
Archbishop Thurstan introduces its agreement, which is the same for everyone, to all new parents and pupils at the school's introductory evening. It is also referred to in the Welcome booklet, and its purpose is explained in class groups by staff during the evening.
Parents then take it home to sign with their children, once a school representative has signed it. So far only one or two parents have decided not to sign.
"You have to make sure that staff continue to understand the contract and its place in the school's life, which can be difficult as staff change", says Christine Rablen.
What of the Archbishop Thurstan agreement now, some years later? Though used quite often with pupils - to draw attention to the fact, for example, that they have not brought in the right equipment or are untidy - it is not used day-to-day as often as the group had originally envisaged, Mrs Rablen said.
But she cautions against thinking that simply signing the agreement is the purpose of the exercise. "It would be naive to assume that showing parents the document that they had signed would necessarily improve a difficult relationship."
What the agreement does, she says, is strengthen the school's ethos, an ethos which maintains that education is something that happens at home as well as school.
Of course, she adds, "things get out of date, and we also may look again at how it's delivered. A home-school agreement is a work in progress, never a finished product."
THE ROLE OF GOVERNORS
Governors have a specific responsibility for:
* the introduction of a home-school agreement and its form;
* a prior review of existing work with parents and families;
* ensuring consultation with all parents takes place;
* setting up procedures to deal with complaints, and the annual monitoring of its effectiveness;
* the regular review and updating of the agreement.
Special issues include:
* governor information, training and support in this area;
* the contribution of governors toconsultations with parents;
* admission policies and arrangements; special needs of ethnic-minority families, families under pressure etc;
* the "enforceability" of agreements;
* a practical approach to monitoring, review and development.
(from the RSA's guide)