By September, every school must have in place an agreement with all their pupils and parents, reports Diane Hinds
It is a nice irony that in the days when home-school agreements were not compulsory, schools tended, more legalistically, to call them "contracts". Now that every school must have one, they are called "agreements". And the law requires that every school must have one ready by September 1.
The idea of the home-school agreement has undergone considerable change over the last 10 years. For the Conservatives, it was potentially a tool for controlling pupils, who could be refused a place if their parents failed to sign.
For New Labour, it began life as a "contract" for getting tough, but has been softened to an agreement, which parents are strongly encouraged but not legally required to sign. In "special circumstances", as the guidance from the Department for Education and Employment puts it, it may be inappropriate to ask a parent, or pupil, to sign the agreement.
Ideally, the agreement should function rather as a "three-legged stool" - to quote managers at Parsons Down junior school in Thatcham, Berkshire - with as many parents, pupils and staff as possible, to give the legs equal length. Its purpose should be to set out clear expectations for each of the partners involved, to reinforce good behaviour and good practice, and to provide a starting point in discussions with pupils, parents or staff when difficulties arise.
"The agreement will be of most benefit if the school establishes a process of genuine partnership with parents," says the guidance.
John Bastiani, a specialist in the home-school relationship, is pleased with the emphasis the department has placed on discussion with parents and pupils in the drawing up process. "The piece of paper on which the agreement is written only has meaning if the consultation process has been done," he says.
From his experience of a Royal Society for the Arts project in the late Eighties, he says there can be a danger of an agreement being lopsided. Schools in particular must be sure that the pledges they make themselves are not too vague and bland, compared with the more specific expectations made of parents and children.
But given the need for an extensive sounding-out of views, Bastiani's main quarrel with the DFEE is that it has not allowed schools enough time to do this properly. Schools that already have close links with their parents have an easier task ahead of them than schools that will be starting virtually from scratch.
"The temptation will be for schools to get hold of someone else's agreement and run off hundreds of copies," he warns. "But this would be a pretty empty gesture, and achieve nothing."
Wyn Hay at the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education (CASE), reports that she already knows of schools where staff are saying they do not plan to "bother" parents with drawing up an agreement, and will simply ask them to sign.
But Pat Petch, chair of the National Governors' Council, emphasises that it is the process which is fundamental, rather than the agreement. She urges schools not to panic about having a polished document by September 1. Instead, she says, they should be taking the first steps, starting the discussion and concentrating on getting a dialogue going.
The guidance, while fairly prescriptive about what it wants to see in an agreement, is not so helpful on how to go about it. Schools feeling in the dark would do well to browse through John Bastiani and Barry Wyse's more hands-on booklet produced by the RSA.
It suggests strategies for consultation and planning, as well as ideas for using it day to day while monitoring its effectiveness.
Stanley junior school, in Teddington, Middlesex, where Pat Petch is chair of governors, first introduced a home-school contract in 1991. "It has helped our school tremendously, and parental participation has grown," she says.
Reporting to parents about children's progress, for instance, has become more of a dialogue, giving parents and pupils a say, and now attracts a "huge turn-out". Pupils have a school council, which is regularly allotted money to spend on the school as they choose, for instance to improve aspects of the playground. "It's all to do with working together," says Mrs Petch.
But mandatory home-school agreements remain a source of concern for some. CASE has always argued that schools should be required to have a home-school policy, but not a written agreement. Asking all parents to sign could be divisive, it believes.
"Our fear is that children who lack parental support already are not going to have their education enhanced by having pressure put on their parents to sign," says Wyn Hay. "There could be a terrible backlash for less fortunate children. If they are identified as being unsupported, it might mean they don't get the help at school to which they have a right."
Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, is also worried that the agreements could cause problems between parents and teachers.
As with the vexed introduction last September of the Literacy Hour, following a voluntary pilot project, it would appear that schools that have already implemented a scheme voluntarily are much more likely to be positive about it than schools that feel something is being imposed on them, with little time to prepare.
Shelfield community school, in Walsall, introduced a home-school contract six years ago, and Tina Heafield, head of the lower school, says it has helped to strengthen the school's relationship with parents. More now come into school - including weekly "drop-ins" - and so far she has never had anyone refuse to sign.
At King's Park primary in Bournemouth, where a home-school "pact" has been running for a year, all children over eight sign it. So far there has been a 65 per cent response rate from parents. Many, however, have been from families the school would not have assumed to be particularly supportive, says the headteacher, Ian Morgan. Already, more children are doing their homework, and he believes behaviour has improved, "because parents see that the school wants to do its best by the children".
The agreement has given the school "a context for talking about home and school working together, and is starting to create a climate in which people feel they can talk freely and be listened to", said Mr Morgan. "The process is the key - and going through this process would probably convert many schools to the idea."
Introducing your home-school agreement by John Bastiani and Barrie Wyse is available from the RSA, tel 0171 930 5115, fax 0171 839 5805, price pound;7.50.