Combined efforts bring big rewards;Briefing;Governors
Eight years ago, at the annual governors and parents meeting at Stanley county junior school, west London, the governors decided to throw in two questions: what sort of school do you think this is? And what sort of school would you like it to be?
"It's all very well to feel nice and cuddly-wuggly about each other, as you tend to do at primary school," says Pat Petch, chair of governors and also chair of the National Governors Council, "but we wanted to be clearer about the aims of the school, and the expectations everyone had of it."
Out of discussions came the idea, from parents, that if they were making demands from school, then the school had the right to expect something from them.
Working parties, made up of equal numbers of parents, staff and governors, then came up with proposals which were discussed by staff, parents, governors, pupils and support staff. The agreement was finalised more than a year after the initial idea was launched.
"All the dinner ladies were involved" says Victoria West, a parent governor. "It was really important that they agreed with it. After all, they're the ones in the playground at lunchtime, which is when you get problems."
Pupils contributed ideas about bullying, pointing out that teasing could be as hurtful as more violent behaviour.
Everything that went into the policy had to be there for a reason. "Take what you wear to school," says Pat Petch. "If we're saying no fashion jeans, or dangly ear-rings, we have to say why." Language was also crucial, setting a tone of "try to be", rather than "will".
The result was a 10-page home-school partnership policy, to which was later added a 13-page behaviour management policy.
Both documents are models of clarity and care. Both move out from fundamental principles - honesty, loyalty, self-discipline - into the smallest detail for school life. Litter is to be put in the bin; PE kit must be kept at school; children must not exclude others from their group - something in the same league as kicking and name-calling.
Pupils are given a comprehensive code of conduct, but so, too, are staff and parents. Teachers will act with professional courtesy and give clear homework instructions; parents will make sure their children arrive on time and try to be involved with school life. Thoughtfulness pervades every page; mistakes are part of the normal learning process; staff will create an atmosphere where children can confidently ask for help; parents will consider walking their children to school to ease congestion.
Any school reading them could well be tempted to adopt them wholesale. But Stanley junior would advise against it.
"It's something that has to be organic to an individual school," says the head, David Cooper. "It's a long process, not something that can be bought off the peg, or written up over the weekend." But the results are well worth it. "Parents know this wasn't written by me. Schools so often say, 'We expect you to...'. But having this sort of agreement has got to make a school's life easier. Knowing you've got politics that parents by and large support."
The agreements are reviewed on a two-year rolling cycle and adjustments are made. "It's rather like a jelly, it slips a bit this way, then that," says Mr Cooper.
"We put more emphasis on now is children's organisational skills. Being in the right class, with the right books. They need more of those today," he says. Another thing parents requested was for the school to allow more time for children to finish work they had started.
The result of all this soul-searching is a school where daily life is clearly pinned to the key values of kindness and courtesy, where pupils open doors with a smile, staff and parents talk easily together, and parents have become more willing to tell the school about domestic problems which might be affecting their children.
In turn, parents see changes in their children. "My son is definitely a different type of child from what he might have been somewhere else," says Anne Allinson, of her 10-year-old son "He's considerate with children his own age, and I think a lot of it is coming from the school."
She and other parents agree that having rights and responsibilities written down provides them with a helpful framework for dealing with issues at home, "where you tend to get too emotionally involved, and not always stop and think about what you're doing", says Victoria West.
The school is big - 360 pupils aged seven to 11 - and oversubscribed. The catchment area is mainly middle class, but it does have nearly 100 pupils on the special needs register and staff and parents are quick to brainstorm about how schools working in more challenging areas could embark on the process.
Don't try to do it all at once, they say. Kick off with a single topic, maybe homework, or discipline. Be realistic in your time scale, and start from where you are and who you've got.
All these things go against the grain of a tight legal straitjacket, as is proposed in the Government's School Standards and Framework Bill, just as the notion of a "contract" runs counter to the spirit of willing partnership.
The Government could well heed the school's voice of experience - that backing such agreements with legislation could undermine much of what they are supposed to achieve.
"The important thing is not what you agree, it's the fact you agree it," says Pat Petch.