Don't ask parents to do the impossible
In many respects, the Scottish Executive's new focus on the value of parent involvement in children's education seems no more than recognition of the blindingly obvious. Such involvement is totally natural and an undoubted "good thing". The trick is to get it right.
Previous efforts have cast parents in a number of different roles. We have had parents as managers when the focus was on school boards and the deeply unpopular self-governing schools. The majority of parents are more than happy to leave worries about school budgets and development plans to the professionals.
Then we have had parents as consumers imposing a form of quality control by using their "purchasing power" in terms of placing requests and the short-lived nursery vouchers. Now at last we have recognition that every single parent is important, not just the elected committees, and that they are important as they contribute to their own child's education. So far, so good.
The problem is that even this approach looks at parents from the school perspective, as supporters for the school, and tends to forget that parents have complex lives that exert a whole range of other pressures and demands on them. In some areas, the limitations on offering support come from the parent's own lack of knowledge. In my case, my youngsters were on their own when it came to modern languages, but knew I was worth approaching for English.
Parents with more than one child know only too well how often they are asked to do the impossible and use the same time to offer totally different support in entirely different ways, usually in different places. Then there are the pressures many parents face from their jobs.
I often wonder whether ministers manage to help their children with homework or whether they argue that the intensity of their work means that they have to leave the "school parent" role to their partner. However, what is true of them is true of many people.
Then there are the competing demands on time from other areas of life.
There is plenty of evidence that where people are faced with housing problems these take precedence over involvement in education - and for very understandable reasons. Housing problems are usually immediate and affect the whole family.
Finally, we should not forget the unexpected crises which cannot be planned for. Top of this list is probably serious illness in the parent, a child, grandparent or other close relative. In such circumstances, it can be hard to keep even normal life ticking over and food on the table, let alone offer active help in terms of ensuring that the child gets to bed on time or that school work is done.
In building a policy for parent involvement, it is important to recognise the complexity of people's lives; to recognise that sometimes they have time to help and sometimes they have none. Lack of active and visible involvement should never be assumed to be a lack of interest.
Similarly, the education of a child should not be dependent on the level of parent involvement. While the Education Minister may quote "research evidence" that increased parent involvement leads to raised attainment, Professor Carol Fitzgibbon's work suggests that it can also lock children into disadvantage if they are unable to have the same support.
Of course, seen from the schools' perspective, parents come in a range that stretches from the over-demanding to the utterly disinterested. Both extremes are hard to handle, and devising a policy that suits everyone is practically impossible. What is important is to recognise that parents and schools have a common objective - the successful education of the child.
As partners in that process, they have different roles. Sometimes and in some areas, the parent will take the lead; sometimes and in other areas, the school will take the lead; and sometimes parent and school will work hand in hand. The partnership does not require both partners to act equally all the time or publicly for it to be effective. Parents can and often do carry out their role, in private, at home and behind a closed door.
Moreover, this is a partnership, where the object of the partnership - the child -is a key player with a free will. Parent and school may have an excellent partnership on homework, but the determined pupil can usually find ways to bypass this joint effort.
At the end of the day, it is impossible to describe a partnership model that is applicable to everyone in every circumstance. What is needed is for the school to have an open door policy and for there to be willingness by both sides to meet and discuss any problems.
Attitude is more important than format and if what the Executive is signalling is a clear change in attitude, then let's hope it lasts longer than the usual ministerial policy initiative.
Judith Gillespie is development manager at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.