A true partnership

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Parental involvement in education is a thorny issue. Teachers welcome the support it can bring, but also feel uneasily that it risks undermining their authority. Governments are keen to use parental influence as a lever for raising standards, but also see unfettered parent power as an unmanageable force which could bring unwelcome political pressure to bear.

Parents themselves are a very mixed bag. Some are obsessed with the details of their child's progress; others seem uninterested. Some may be keen to tell the teacher how to do the job; others are too timid to embark upon a conversation. Some may have PhDs; others may be barely literate.

Broadly speaking, however, there are two types of parent. There are those with energy and commitment who support their children's learning and can be drawn on by the school - whether as fund-raisers, governors, or as a source of ideas and encouragement. Then there are those who probably did not have a positive educational experience themselves, who are often from disadvantaged backgrounds, and who may find schools and teachers difficult to cope with.

The aim with the first group must be to harness their energy and understanding on behalf of the school and the education system as a whole. The aim with the second should be to help them support their own children's learning at home, and to gain enough confidence to act in partnership with the teachers. Sometimes, usually through innovative schemes such as those discussed at this week's conference on Parents as Partners in Schooling (page 6), members of that second group can be transformed into members of the first.

Nearly all developed countries are currently trying to initiate more effective partnerships between parents and schools. Countries which have most recently reformed their systems - such as Spain and Ireland - have taken care to build parents in at every level.

Britain, like most other countries, has marked strengths and weaknesses when it comes to parental participation. Our primary teachers, in particular, have become expert in drawing on parental assistance in the classroom. Using parents to listen to children read, to help on the computers, to organise cooking or swimming sessions, has become a hallmark of good primary education. In many countries, this sense of partnership on the ground between teachers and parents is lacking.

We also give parents a strong role in school governance - and our parent governors can make real decisions. But British parents are poorly represented at local or national level. They do not sit on ministerial advisory committees, as they do in France, Germany and Spain. In Denmark and Spain, parents even have an influence on the national curriculum.

The Government's proposal that every local authority education committee should co-opt a parent member is welcome - but does not go far enough. The suggestion is that these should be parent governors; yet in many schools these governors do not succeed in becoming genuinely representative.

The fact is that there is no other pool of active parents on which to draw, because Britain has not managed to establish a healthy nationwide parents' association which genuinely draws on the grassroots. The National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, apart from being riven by internal feuding, is not an appropriate channel for parental views since it includes teachers too. It lacks the strong and consistent parental voice which might gain the ear of government.

The Government should now encourage the setting up of parents' associations in every school - to a recommended structure. Ideally, these associations would draw on every class in the school, through a system of class councils which would elect their own representatives to the association. This would prevent it falling into the hands of a clique of highly-active individuals who dominate the rest. And strong school-based associations will provide a pool of energetic and informed parents. A National Parents' Council is essential if the Government is to have a credible and authoritative account of what parents think.

At the moment, the parent's voice at national level is so muffled as to be inaudible. Yet if standards are to be raised in our schools, parents must be taken seriously as partners. True partnership entails mutual respect, and a real recognition of the skills and understanding that each party brings to the joint endeavour. This is what we should be aiming for - in schools, in local education authorities, and even in Sanctuary Buildings.

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