Home-school tie on uneasy ground

25th October 1996 at 01:00
The relationship between home and school has never been the smoothest of partnerships: it is not so many years since some schools had dividing lines painted in the playground or sported notices bearing the legend "No parents beyond this point".

Although the climate has changed and the value of home-school links is generally acknowledged, the debate continues on where responsibility should lie for the behaviour - specifically disruptive behaviour - of pupils in school. Now this uneasy relationship seems set to be formalised by the introduction of contracts, according to Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.

Mrs Shephard's announcement at the Conservative party conference that yes, the Government does intend to set out legislation which would include home-school contracts in the next Parliamentary session, was greeted with enthusiasm by the Tory faithful; not least because of the context in which the statement was made, with its emphasis on increasing schools' disciplinary powers.

What is wrong with home-school contracts? After all, legal obligations can lead to improved dialogue and better services. In many respects home-school work originated when, in 1870, local authorities were given the power to make attendance at primary schools compulsory. In visiting the homes of absent pupils, officers appointed to enforce school attendance were often able to identify domestic and other difficulties and, in practice, provide valuable support to children and their families.

So why the problem with contracts? The answer lies not in the fact of formalising the commitment of school to home and home to school, which can be helpful to all concerned in clarifying the shared obligation to our children. Rather it lies in the pressure to introduce contracts as a catch-all solution, when many of the mechanisms which might support parents and children and prevent conflict with schools are simply not in place.

New research by the National Children's Bureau into the work of the East London Schools Fund, a school-home support service established in 1984, points to two facts. One is the great benefit to be reaped by children, their parents and their teachers from constructive initiatives which link home and school.

There is clear evidence that, for example, home-school liaison workers can recognise problems in the making, educational or otherwise, and can help resolve them before crisis point is reached. They may be able to pick up on early signs of difficulty or disaffection in young people, which can be addressed without recourse to the drastic step of exclusion; equally, they are in a position to alert other agencies when it is clear that a pupil, for whatever reason, needs more help than the school alone can provide.

Parents who fear the stigma of dealing with, for instance, a social worker, are often comfortable seeking advice from someone based in the less threatening environment of school, while children too are able to discuss their problems, from bullying at school to conflicts with parents or teachers, with a competent but neutral adult. Headteachers report an improvement in relationships with parents, as well as in children's learning, when pastoral care of this nature is provided. Teachers, however good their intentions, are frequently too pressured to offer it.

The other key fact which emerges from our research is the general lack of coherence - not to mention a lack of resources - where home-school work is concerned. Some local education authorities, certainly, are committed to it, as are some schools, but in other cases home-school liaison depends largely on the initiative and ability of individual teachers. Those projects that do exist are often scantily funded and face an uncertain future; an uncertainty which can itself militate against the development of real trust between home and school in the long term.

"Trust" is one of the words which seems to be missing in the debate on home-school contracts: the emphasis, intentionally or not, is on constraint. The chances are that parents of disruptive pupils are baffled by their situation and need support, not the threat of further penalties, if they are to help their children. We should be ensuring that our schools have the resources and the incentive to work in full and fruitful partnership with parents, not seeking to redraw those playground battle lines.

Mhemooda Malek is a senior research officer at the National Children's Bureau. Her report, Making Home-School Work: home-school work and the East London Schools Fund, is available at Pounds 8.50 (Pounds 6.50 for Bureau members) plus Pounds 3.00 pp. Telephone 0171 843 6029 to order.

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