The enemy that should be within;The TES-Keele seminars;Briefing;School Management

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Andy Hargreaves says teachers must make allies out of parents and build a progressive education system on firm foundations. Neil Levis reports

When an angry parent confronts you about the letter you sent home about a child's behaviour or lack of progress, conflict is difficult to avoid.

Under the existing education system, parents and teachers are natural enemies. So said American sociologist Willard Waller back in the Thirties.

"Parent and teachers usually live in conditions of mutual distrust and enmity. Both wish the child well, but it is such a different kind of well that conflict must inevitably arise over it."

His ideas find an echo today in Andy Hargreaves, a professor of education in Toronto, Canada, who wants teachers and parents to become public allies to move education in a progressive direction.

Hargreaves, from Lancashire, is perhaps the lesser well-known half of Fullan and Hargreaves - Michael Fullan being the author quoted so often in school management writing. The pair have recently published a book about schools and their relationships with the communities they serve.

Hargreaves, in England this year as visiting professor at Nottingham, was the first speaker in the 1999 TES-Keele Improving School Network seminar series. And the first half of his talk, analysing the relationship between schools and their communities, was a tour de force, expounding why the recent drive for standards in many countries is hampered because of the shaky foundations on which it is built.

Secondary schools, because of their size and organisation into subject lesson groups with different teachers, are the most troubled, says Hargreaves. He wants to see the world of education come to terms with what he calls the emotional geography of schooling.

Cognition. Behaviour. Skill. Knowledge. These are emphasised by governments many of which in recent years, have tried to make education more market-driven by allowing parents to shape the direction of schools. It has happened in Australia, New Zealand and, of course, in Britain. But, he says, there is no evidence to show that such moves have narrowed the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of schooling.

Ironically, when the Teacher Training Agency campaigns, its advertisements emphasise the emotions, the inspirational side of the job. Ignoring the emotional side of teaching, says Hargreaves, actually limits attempts to raise standards.

The problem is that too many teachers want to keep parents at a distance. In many instances, they are already culturally, socially and physically removed from the communities they teach. They worry about keeping a professional distance between themselves and their pupils - and the pupils' parents. Their notion of the detached professional is based on models such as the law and medicine. But teaching is not like that, says Hargreaves. It's about engaging with people - and that means engaging with their communities.

He sees four models of relationships between teachers and parents: the first is where there is no contact and the teacher is left alone to get on with the job; the second is where the parent is used as a support to the child's education - they are drawn in to raise funds for the school, to mix the paints and relieve staff of some of the clerical burden; the third model is where parents are learners - we have a new curriculum or programme so we explain it to them first to involve them; and the fourth model is the one that Hargreaves thinks we should be working towards, where the teachers are prepared to learn from parents - learning about modern technology in the classroom is one obvious possibility.

The problem with keeping parents at a distance is that you tend only to see them at times of crisis: when behaviour or work has become a problem. And the distance starves teachers of an essential part of their diet: praise.

Research has shown that even the best performers in the classroom want feedback. It's a lonely life out there in front of 9W. Teachers want to be told they're doing well, that they're doing the right thing. And yet in a survey Hargreaves carried out in Canada, only one teacher out of the 53 questioned actively sought the opinions of students about the course they had taken.

What teachers fear is negative feedback, Hargreaves asserts. Most of it comes in the form of letters or telephone calls. Communication, once again, at a distance. Parents' evenings don't really give enough time for teachers and parents to build a proper relationship - the average time for each consultation, a study in Canada revealed, was nine minutes.

And yet research has shown that involving parents in their children's education, especially during the early years, can significantly improve their learning.

Hargreaves wants to see a social movement for educational change based on an alliance of parents and teachers. The time is ripe because fairness and equality are creeping back onto the agenda, he says.

He compared his idea to the green movement, the peace or women's movements. By lobbying, protesting, networking and mounting media campaigns, such a movement could, he predicts, create a situation where people were motivated by public good rather than private interest.

Under the "principled professionalism" that would prevail, the public would join teachers in protests against government interference in teacher professionalism by reducing class or curriculum discretion; teachers would not stand back from or over-react to unfounded criticism, but respond with grace, calm and authority; and teachers would have the confidence and maturity to acknowledge fair criticism.

What's Worth Fighting For In Education by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, Open University Press, pound;10.99

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