The bare bones of home-school partnership

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Education, Entertainment and Learning in the Home By David Buckingham and Margaret Scanlon Open University Press pound;18.99

This deeply fascinating, exhaustively exemplified enquiry into the changing relationships between education, entertainment and the home brought back an awkward family memory. Until I was 15, when my own parents were forced to question themselves and me about their attitude, they adopted an air of disinterest in the details of my education. I was then, and remain in retrospect, entirely grateful.

They were not uncaring but, as good parents of the 1950s, regarded the extent of their role as providing me with sensible winter shoes and summer sandals with white crepe soles, and making sure I brushed my hair before I went to school. I can remember my mother helping me with a holiday scrapbook project by writing to Tate amp; Lyle to ask for samples and materials. But they never put me under pressure or showed any anxiety about my performance.

When, at 11, I was offered a place at both Harrow and University College School, they left the choice to me. I opted for UCS on no other basis than it was nearer the centre of the metropolis. (Buckingham and Scanlon acknowledge the very real pressures on today's parents at the time of secondary transfer.) I was aware that some other boys' parents were a little more on the case.

My mate Malcolm was forever being made to write letters to the national press in his free time. I relished my freedom to do what I wanted outside school, and thought my own parents' attitudes were entirely appropriate. It was only when I transferred to a south-coast grammar school that their let-me-get-on-with-it approach was challenged. A teacher asked me if my parents ever discussed A-level options and future career choices with me. I gave him the honest answer. Never. It was then that they received the letter, admonishing them for their lack of involvement.

Having relished that clear demarcation between home and school, I have inevitably had misgivings when finding myself, as a teacher, encouraging the proactive role currently expected of parents. The authors, who write as "we" throughout their book, have misgivings too, and are particularly critical of the ludicrously unrealistic exhortations contained in the topic leaflets that constitute a government initiative called The Learning Journey. One leaflet suggests parents may like to dress up in togas made of old sheets and make sweet wine cakes with their children. Malcolm's mum would have been up for that, but the majority of parents interviewed by the authors dismissed such suggestions out of hand.

But there is much, much more to this book than a series of put-downs for over-zealous attempts to strengthen the home-school partnership. As a study of learning in the home, it is underpinned by detailed analyses of a variety of educational media that includes books, magazines and software.

These studies demonstrate a "growing colonisation of the public sphere by commercial forces" and the "curricularisation" of family life with the invasion of children's leisure time by increased levels of homework and suggestions for learning activities.

The authors draw generalised conclusions of this kind along the way, so that the book is continuously stimulating on a theoretical level. For example, they make the point that "the growing demand for parental involvement in education has arisen just at a time when mothers are increasingly working outside the home" and, perhaps more contentiously, "as education becomes increasingly 'technologised', it may well become harder for mothers to support their children's learning". The extent to which fathers have positioned themselves outside the parent-school partnership was brought home to the authors when they conducted family interviews.

"Astonishingly, only three fathers of a possible total of 16 saw fit to be involved in any way."

These interviews provide the authors with their one outbreak of humour:

"Parents and children had to be on their best behaviour, for fear that we might take them in for further questioning." Otherwise, the tone is seriously sceptical, although many of the quoted comments raise a smile.

The detailed analyses of educational media in the central part of the book will be of vital interest to anyone working in publishing, as well as to educators. This could have been dry stuff, but the authors manage to make the comparison of a Horrible History title with a Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide into something of a gladiatorial contest.

Other fascinating sections include a deconstructive study of representations of dinosaurs in educational texts, and, most thought-provoking of all, an analysis of the rise of "edutainment" magazines aimed at pre-school children and the manner in which the word "fun" is used to disguise a "reductive and disciplinary conception of learning".

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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