Teachers should involve parents in the educational process, not keep them at arm's length, argues Fiona Carnie
Like putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar" is how headteachers' leader David Hart described the prospect of giving parents more say in running schools. And yet parent power is Labour's latest big idea for education.
Was this just a ploy to get the parent vote or will the Government be serious about involving parents more in their children's schools?
David Hart is not the only member of the teaching profession to react negatively. Much has been said about why parents should be kept at arm's length. Admittedly a number of teachers and heads have had difficulties with some parents but this is the exception rather than the norm. Talk to any head and they will say that they have improved their partnership with parents in recent years, citing home-school contracts and agreements, the increased role of parents on the governing body and more regular parent-teacher consultations as evidence.
And yet if you ask parents how much say they have in what goes on at their child's school, the vast majority will say they have very little. They cannot influence the curriculum, they are unable to object to the excessive testing, and there is a host of other issues over which they have no control - school meals, uniform, behaviour policy and trips to name a few.
All these things affect their children on a daily basis, yet parents - and students too - are, for the most part, excluded from the decision-making process.
Many parents see home-school agreements as a way of getting them to sign up to the school's agenda. They think parent governors generally represent their own personal views on the governing body. As for parent-teacher consultations, anyone who knows anything about education or about children knows full well that 15 minutes two or three times a year is not sufficient to discuss a child's progress meaningfully. The biggest role that parents play at school is still fundraising and organising social events. Recent research acknowledges that 72 per cent of parents would like greater involvement with their child's school; that parental involvement in their children's education is a major factor in raising standards and that schools which have a high level of parental involvement are generally the more successful. Schools therefore have no option other than to work more closely with parents.
So what should a genuine partnership with parents look like? How can it be organised so that it works in the best interests of parents, teachers and children? In many other European countries parents share responsibility for their children's education with schools and as a result are far more involved. In Denmark, for example, schools hold termly class meetings so that all the parents of children in one class or tutor group have a regular opportunity to explore issues of mutual concern with other parents and the teacher.
Such meetings enable schools to involve parents in the education process by discussing what they are doing and enlisting parental support. They also enable teachers to get to know families better and this helps in their relationship with the child. For parents who are disengaged from school life, it is far less threatening to attend such a group meeting than an individual consultation.
In addition to such class meetings, there are whole-school parents'
councils or forums which enable all parents to contribute to school policy making. A ground-breaking project in this country, led by the charity Human Scale Education, is involving four schools, all of which are in challenging circumstances, in finding new ways of drawing parents in - through class meetings, by appointing parent class representatives to reach out to families and by setting up a parents' council with links to the governing body. All of the schools are showing marked improvements in their relationship with parents and they expect that this will, in turn, impact on children's progress.
This work highlights two key points. Firstly, parents know how their children feel about school and can play an important part in helping schools meet their needs. They often have ideas about how things might be better and are well placed to contribute to this debate. Secondly, schools have a key role to play in community regeneration. Their support for and collaboration with parents in the challenging task of bringing up children is of vital importance. The new Children Act recognises this role and will have a major impact on schools. But this is not to be feared. Examples here and abroad show that genuine collaboration can transform school culture by strengthening feelings of ownership of all those involved.
So this is not a debate about putting parents in charge of schools. It is more a question of creating the conditions and structures for an ongoing and constructive dialogue between parents, teachers and students in order to develop a shared mission. It is not so much a question of alcoholics in charge of the bar but getting everyone to come to the party and work together to make education a meaningful and relevant experience for all.
This is what democracy is about. Let's hope that the Government will now encourage it.
Fiona Carnie is author of Creating Child-friendly schools: a guide for parents, published by Human Scale Education. For more information about this project go to www.hse.org.ukpwpschools