Letters home should be free of capital offence

25th April 2003 at 01:00
ne of the most widespread cliches knocking around education circles is that education is a "partnership" between parents and schools.

Teachers often say that they would like more support from parents, and one of the strengths of independent schools in particular is that they understand the importance of enlisting parental energy.

Those parents know that if their money is not to be wasted, they must do their bit. And they do. How else would all those multiplication tables and French irregular verbs be installed into the heads of the more reluctant students if their mothers were not testing them in the car and at the tea-table?

But if ordinary schools - especially at secondary level - want to attract the active support of more parents, they do need to sharpen up their act.

Simple things such as well-expressed and friendly letters home - with sensitive attention paid to language and punctuation - can make an enormous difference.

Don't schools realise how off-putting their pompous and bureaucratic communications are to many parents? Was it really necessary, when my daughter was in primary school, to address me as "Dear infant parent"? When a headteacher wants to thank us, can't he say, "Thank you all very much forI" rather than, "I would like to take this opportunity to thank all parents forI" And why do letters home have to include so much jargon, such as "curriculum delivery" and "whole school ethos"? I have been in education all my life, and if I find such terms alienating, God knows what other parents think.

Above all, if education is to be a real partnership, the two sides need to respect each other.

When I visited Ireland in 1996 as part of a research project looking at the relationship between schools and parents in nine different countries, I was fascinated to see, pinned on the office wall of a secondary school principal in Cork, the following thought-provoking definition of "partnership", coined by the early-years specialist Gillian Pugh:

"Partnership is a working relationship that is characterised by a shared sense of purpose, mutual respect and willingness to negotiate. This implies a sharing of information, responsibility, skills, decision-making and accountability."

Yet too many communications from school are written in a semi-exasperated tone - as if the author had forgotten that he or she were addressing responsible adults who in their working lives may be company directors, police officers, doctors, social workers, traffic wardens, even journalists - and not kids who enjoy making teachers' lives difficult.

Under what other circumstances would an adult receive a letter about a new dress code which included the following emphases: "Plain black school trousers (NOT jeans, shorts, cords, patterned trousers, leggings, tracksuit bottoms, shell suits)," or "Black flat shoes (NOT boots or platforms.

Trainers are NOT acceptable)"?

Of course, all parents have received scores of such communications. And they do make you wonder who is being addressed here. Is it a parent or a child?

I find this kind of tone jerks me straight back to my own school days 40 years ago. I am being berated in the corridor for having an inch of petticoat showing below my school skirt - and boy am I feeling mutinous.

All these capital letters are the equivalent of shouting. And however much teachers may want to shout at pupils, they really should make an effort not to shout at parents. They need their parents onside, and making them feel like naughty children is not the way to do it.

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