Always start with the basics but don't forget the detail

8th November 1996 at 00:00
As George Orwell might have said, "Some parents are more equal than others". In the education marketplace, the exercise of parent power was originally meant to be the Government's main weapon in the destruction of "producer capture". Such simplicities never made sense and it is now clear that the purchasing power of parents is conditional on the quality of their offspring. It's as if a hospital rejected patients who are very ill and favoured those who offer the satisfaction of an easy cure. How absurd that would be.

The speed at which the Government's own legislation is being dismantled is impressive, if only for its sheer chutzpah. Parents' choice of school is rapidly being transmuted into (some) schools' choice of parent, whilst the parent's right of appeal over school exclusion and special needs provision is being modified and the Government rapidly retreats from its earlier advice concerning how and if a child, following some misdemeanour, can be detained at the school's displeasure. The Government's ending of the school's right to exclude pupils for an indefinite period was enacted less than five years ago. It was based on evidence of some real unfairness to pupils and parents. I hope the latest proposal for up to seven week's exclusion in a school year doesn't allow these earlier, occasional abuses to return.

The bane of many a child's education in the 1970s, the "malad" school is surely about to return. In this way, we can avert our gaze from the unacceptable face of special needs (the bit that doesn't have the sentimental "aah . . ." factor attached to it) and we can pretend that good quality integration, especially of these children, now described as having "emotional and behavioural difficulties", doesn't cost money.

Meanwhile, lawyers and politicians argue about the enforceability of home-school contracts, the ones which extend school rules to parents. The DFEE recommends one of these as an exemplar. It not only implies that the daughter is a passive object and a parental possession, but also expects the parent to help run the school. My service agreement with Dixons doesn't include a request that I help them out on busy Saturday mornings or contribute to their staff training programme. Some good ideas shouldn't be wrenched into the formality of a contract.

Good schools have, of course, found myriad ways in which parents, children and teachers can work together for the benefit of pupils, severally and individually. Mutuality is the aim, and a fair balance of expectations and responsibilities has to be secured. Knowing what pupils and parents would like to have available in schools would be a useful starting point, alongside the school's own requirements and aspirations.

For several years, my colleague Mike Johnson has been scrutinising thousands of parent and pupil comments in the Keele University attitude questionnaires. He tells me that both parents and pupils repeatedly stress the importance of a secure, supervised environment, and this is really what all this heated debate about school discipline amounts to. They also want a physical environment which includes access to well-maintained, safe toilets and clean drinking water. (Always start with the basics and don't forget the detail).

Parents and pupils also agree about homework, although parents stress regularity and sufficiency, while pupils frequently refer to its manageability, including the problem of the London bus "bunching" phenomenon, and the need for better structured tasks which relate to identifiable units of classwork. Regular and useable assessment and marking of work is another plea. Increasingly, there are critical comments about the lack of books being taken home or allocated to pupils over a term or longer.

While the majority of parents and pupils like their schools, their suggestions about how things could be better are not of the rhetorical, vacuous kind that some home-school contracts display. Thus, the approachability and friendliness of most teachers are acknowledged and much appreciated, but both parents and pupils want structured one-to-one discussion time with teachers, with practical, written outcomes. A more customised approach to the mapping and promoting of pupil progress is sought.

So when we've all recovered our senses, following recent outbursts of moral panic and associated sanctimony, perhaps the many good schools we have can remember three things. First, that succeeding with the most difficult pupils and parents is a mark of genuine excellence. Second, that any worthwhile home-school contract or agreement has to be three-sided; the needs and aspirations of the school, the parent and the pupil are of equal importance. Third, that the listening school, which responds to the concerns of its participants in practical, specific ways, probably doesn't need a mission statement or, even, a government-approved statement of moral values.

Professor Margaret Maden is director of the Centre for Successful Schools, Keele University.

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