Home + school = learning

27th February 1998 at 00:00
The title of the Government's recent discussion paper, Parents as Partners, is misleading. Parental Support for Schooling would be more accurate. Yet glib use of the word "partner" and limited approaches to some aspects should not lead us to dismiss this document. It contains important issues and at least they are getting official, if bureaucratised and school-centred, attention. The consultation process should be taken seriously since something substantive could emerge.

The paper is in three sections. The first is on school boards. Next week Jim O'Brien, of Moray House Institute, will write about them, so I shall concentrate on the remaining two parts. These concern home-school agreements (linked to learning compacts) and parents' approaches to schools. Information for parents and reporting are to be topics for future consultative exercises. The main text is by Scottish Office officials on behalf of the Education Minister (advised by HMI) followed by 19 questions for consultation. Although there is a general invitation to submit views on matters not targeted by the questions, most people will probably be lured into following the Scottish Office agenda. I hope that respondents will break from the set questions and urge educational partnership.

A message from the Minister for Education, Brian Wilson, opens the paper with reference to Labour's manifesto statement that every parent must be a partner in education. Sadly, there are departures from earlier commitments. Immediately before the election Scottish Labour stated that it was "supporting parents as key educators" and repeated my calculation that "between birth and age 16, children spend less than 15 per cent of their waking time at school. For the other 85 per cent of the time they are the responsibility of their parents. Parents play a crucial role in the development of their own children." Labour rightly asserted: "Parents have a critical role in their children's education."

At the time many of us cheered. At last a political party recognised what research has shown for decades: that home is a powerful force in children's learning and simultaneously a source of inequality. If the problem in part lies with home learning, so must the cure. That means emphasis on parental responsibility, home learning and an educational partnership with teachers. In Labour's pre-election words, "parents must be encouraged to recognise their responsibility in their child's education".

Since so much of what is learnt at home (well or badly) is related to the 5-14 curriculum, such as language, number, morality, social skills, relationships, health, and much more, recognition of a shared curriculum could replace dated notions of school "compensating" for home background. Parents also have an impact on children's access to other learning sources such as television, peer group and the neighbourhood. But home-based learning is not the thrust of the consultation paper which concentrates on ways for parents to support teachers, plus administrative techniques to assist "alienated" parents to contact schools. Both are important, but they are only part of the picture.

However, there is scope for advance. The discussion paper takes up two issues which some of us have long advocated. These are home-school agreements and the class as a unit for liaison. If these can be upgraded from the rather school-centred and administrative functions the consultation paper suggests to a partnership focused on children's learning, then the Scottish Office paper will have provided an outstanding service.

Since 1984 when I first advanced the idea of home-school agreements in a report for the European Commission, examples have appeared in different parts of Europe, and I am pleased that my proposal could become part of Scottish policy. The Government's scheme suggests building on the agreements by using them as a first step towards "learning compacts", a mechanism for pursuing targets both for the school and for each individual pupil. This is an exciting possibility as long as it includes home learning. Yet agreements can be insensitive if they merely concentrate on school-centred, largely administrative issues such as attendance, rules, discipline and school-based parents' rights, which the consultation paper targets along with a reference to school-set homework - something far less significant than home learning.

I believe that agreements should start with parents signifying that they understand four fundamentals:

l Prime responsibility for my child's education rests with me by law.

l The school will assist me to carry out that responsibility.

l My active support for my child's schooling may increase hisher likelihood of gaining maximum benefit from it.

l I affect my child's education through daily actions in the home.

Underneath the signature of parent or guardian (as examples, but without legal sanction) could be listed the educational activities which a parent might provide, including those which support the school administration and teaching. The signature would be for understanding, not for the actions, so that agonising in the Government's paper about whether the agreement should be compulsory is solved. Agreement to the four items of understanding could be a condition of the school place. The actions, however, could be based on exhortation. Making a school place conditional on accepting the points of principle seems logical since schooling itself is not compulsory. If parents refuse to sign, they can educate their child "by other means", as the 1980 Education Act permits.

The school should sign its part of the understanding, reflecting the same points and undertaking to provide a professional service for parents - an aspect not raised by the Scottish Office. Then there are suggestions in the Government's paper for facilitating approaches to the school for parents "who may feel intimidated by, or alienated from, the education system". These include "parent advocates" and "class contacts", the latter consisting of one parent, elected or selected for each class (or year group), to be a source of information and of representation. Although sensible, these could also turn out to be somewhat bureaucratic and peripheral unless class contacts have broader tasks such as co-ordinating class-based meetings for all parents with children in a class (or year group) at which the coming month's curriculum can be outlined by teachers of that class and actions discussed by which home learning can support school learning. Examples of this operate in Italy and Scandinavia.

The most crucial omission is any mention that parents (not schools or education authorities) bear legal responsibility for the education of their individual child. That parental duty is the very foundation of our education system and must be central to any partnership. The task of the school, among others, is to assist parents to fulfil their duty. The consultation paper was written by officials who do not necessarily have backgrounds as educational specialists, advised by inspectors of schools whose job, quite properly, concentrates on schooling. As recognition increases that children's education is more than schooling and as home learning, television and other media, along with electronic and distance provision, accelerate in the new millennium and transform education, so perhaps we need an Advisorate on Children's Non-School Learning to inform the minister and his officials.

I hope that there will be a high response rate to the consultation paper and that respondents will press for a parent-teacher partnership which is more educationa l than administrative since home is a crucial - perhaps the determinant - learning centre for every child.

In retirement Alastair Macbeth is senior research fellow at the department of education at Glasgow University and reader in education at St Andrew's College.

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