2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Joan Sallis Answers your questions.

Like others we have been consulting parents on our home-school agreement. Time is short to get it in place in September. They have made a number of criticisms, the most serious being that it is one-sided - the school's undertakings being woolly and in what one parent called "mission-speak" and the parents' and pupils' obligations very stringent.

For instance, the school is to "use its best endeavours" to develop every child's potential while the parent promises to see that all homework is finished to a suitable standard, and the child is to bring every piece of necessary equipment. Both must ensure punctual and regular attendance. I didn't pick up these points when we were drafting it, but now I confess I do know what parents are saying.

You have some very perceptive parents, and I am glad there are people around saying these necessary things.

I know exactly what they mean by "mission-speak", and a home-school agreement is not the place for it. From what you say your draft had some of the features which could give the idea of home-school agreements a bad name. There is nothing wrong with translating a home-school partnership on behalf of the child into concrete intentions and endeavours, but when so many feared that it could become a school's instrument of correction rather than a statement of an equal partnership, they must have had such drafts in mind.

Unfortunately, while your parents sound as if they can take care of themselves, bad home-school agreements are more likely to be found in areas where parents haven't the self-confidence to complain.

I cannot here - even if I had the skills to do so - give you a model agreement, but there are good models around, including some in the Department for Education and Employment guide. It is your agreement, and you can only go as far as the majority of you are prepared to, but it would be unwise to ignore the criticisms. I would also like to make a few general points.

First of all the agreement should be concrete, and not full of vague, pious statements. Second, it should be an instrument of equality: if one side "uses its best endeavours" the other side cannot be expected to do more, and in a secondary school especially I would say that even the best parents can only do their best when it comes to seeing that homework is properly completed and adolescents dressed tidily. On the other side I would like to see the school give some precise undertakings such as marking homework promptly and helpfully and having a time-limit within which they aim to answer concerns. I would like to see some evidence of understanding that if teaching is hard these days, parenting isn't a piece of cake either. And I would like to see the school's promises contain evidence of care and kindness, expressed in undertakings such as letting parents know at once if they have any concern about the child's welfare or happiness and listening to their point of view when there is a problem. Most schools are kind and fair: let them advertise it.

This may sound critical of schools and I don't mean to be so because I have seen some excellent examples of home-school agreements. They are part of the law now, and I think we must all try to use them to create goodwill and understanding.

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