Book of the week

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
PARENTS EXIST, OK!? Issues and visions for parent-school relationships. By Joe Hallgarten. Institute of Public Policy Research pound;10.95. Distributed by Central Books, tel: 020 8986 5488

When I was a middle school head in the late Seventies, I would often, at the end of the day, walk to the top of the school drive to chat to the parents waiting for their children. It gave me the same sort of agreeable feeling the Queen Mother must have when she emerges on her birthday to pass briefly among the adoring throng. The difference was that whereas everyone cheers the Queen Mum, the parents went very quiet whenever I appeared.

What's surprising, looking back, is that I regarded this as a positive step in the area of home-school relations. So, even more surprisingly, did the parents. If Ididn't appear for a few days, word would filter back that I had been missed.

The relationship between schools and parents is complicated, myth-laden and full of contradictions. Although virtually every school over the past 40 years or so has claimed to want to listen to parents, many have excluded them from anything other than cosmetic participation. It was frustration at this which presumably led to someone writing on the wall of a primary school in the London borough of Hackney two years ago the words which form the title of this book.

Drawing on work by the Institute of Public Policy Research, Joe Hallgarten seeks to describe the mechanics and effects of how parents and schools interact. He also floats recommendations and suggested policies. There are case studies and there is practical advice on some of the nuts-and-bolts issues, such as homework and parents' evenings.

It's a fascinating read. Time and again, Hallgarten deals with a familiar issue and then tells you something about it that you didn't know before. Much is based on published research, but you're not likely to find it all in one place anywhere else, and it's presented here with insight and clarity.

So, for example, Hallgarten reminds us of Ofsted's finding that relationships with parents are good in every beacon school, and weak in most schools in special measures. He refers to research that found that "a common factor in schools that have removed themselves from special measures is the involvement of parents in developing and supporting an action plan". As a counterpoint, he also covers research that suggests it's not the actual involvement in school that makes the difference, but the fact that "involved" parents put more into developing their children at home.

Hallgarten concludes that, "There is still good cause to agree that policies which successfully encourage parental involvement in pupils' learning and school life will contribute to the general raising of achievement." Bt, he goes on, that doesn't mean that more parental involvement will iron out inequalities. Quite the reverse, in fact: "In its current condition, parental involvement in children's learning is normally less of a protective barrier than a lever to maximise the potential of the already advantaged."

The implication here is that the more we insist that schools encourage parental involvement , the more we may be reinforcing inequality. The big question, therefore, is: "Can the education service be structured to enable as many children as possible to achieve their potential, whether assisted or hindered by their family situation?" There are many such insights. In a discussion on how parents might influence decision-making in school, Hallgarten points out the relative ineffectiveness of governing bodies which, constitutionally, cannot be pressure groups for parents. What's needed instead, he suggests, are "parent forums", common in other countries and already in existence in some parts of the UK, particularly in Warwickshire.

This is just one of a host of suggestions and recommendations. The overall thrust is a call for action at four levels. At national level, policy should be enabling rather than prescriptive, and Hallgarten makes suggestions as to how this might be achieved through targeted funding.

At local authority level, specific groups should be targeted - fathers, carers, bilingual families - and, in general, there is a need to support initiatives that schools might otherwise be carrying out in isolation. The suggestion is that this kind of work is something that no parachuted-in private agency could achieve.

At school level, there is a need for something deeper and more structural than the parents' room and the welcoming signs. Secondary schools in particular need to think about this, because although parental involvement will inevitably decline as pupils get older, "what cannot be accepted is that this decline is so rapid and, if occurring at age 11, premature".

"The onus for change must fall on to the school, not the parent. The aim should be to create family-like schools, in all their shades of diversity and complexity, not school-like families."

But a solution lies only partly with policies and structures. The crucial fourth level concerns the attitudes of individual professionals. An appendix covering a teacher survey taken this year demonstrates a resistance to any real partnership. "Respondents disapproved of all the suggested areas in which parents could become more involved in school decision-making. Nearly three-quarters rejected the assertion that parents should have a greater say in the way schools are run." Here, surely, in the staffrooms, is where any sea change has to start.


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