A close relationship with parents raises standards in the classroom, writes Fiona Carney
At Park school in Devon it is not uncommon to find a group of parents sitting round the kitchen table first thing in the morning with a mug of coffee discussing progress in the school vegetable garden - which they helped to create. You might equally find one in a classroom helping children with their reading or upstairs redecorating the children's toilets.
Parents can come in to the school at any time and there is a quiet room with comfy chairs where they can sit and read or talk to other parents and teachers. Regular information and discussion evenings are held on aspects of the school curriculum or on issues of interest to parents.
There is a fortnightly news-letter and each family has a pigeon-hole for ease of communication with teachers and other parents.
The point about Park school is that it has created a genuine partnership with parents. The ethos is about sharing responsibility for education between home and school.
Recent research demonstrates that parental involvement in their children's education is a major factor in raising standards. The Government has published a document drawing together this research which states that "schools which have a high level of parental involvement are generally the more successful".
It acknowledges that 72 per cent of parents would like greater involvement with their child's school. And yet in the vast majority of schools parental input consists mainly of fundraising and organising social events. Most schools have parentteacher consultations for 10 or 15 minutes two or three times a year but nobody can pretend that this is enough time for a meaningful dialogue between teachers and parents about a child's progress.
So what are the key features of a genuine partnership and how can schools and parents go about creating this? First, it is about collaborating over children's education - sharing information about what and how children are learning so that parents can support their child.
Second, it is about involving parents in school decision-making. Parent governors are supposed to represent the parental viewpoint but generally there is no mechanism by which they can consult parents democratically.
In many other European countries schools have set up class meetings so that all the parents of children in one class have a regular opportunity to discuss issues of mutual concern with other parents and with the teacher or tutor. And there are whole-school parents' councils or forums which enable parents to contribute to school policy.
Given the clear evidence of the benefits, why are greater efforts not being made in the UK to establish a closer partnership? What do schools have to lose?
There is certainly a fear among teachers that by giving parents a voice their professionalism will be undermined. There is also a perception that parents are often concerned primarily with their own child rather than the good of the school. Teachers are concerned about the amount of time such work with parents will take.
However, building up a dialogue gives schools the opportunity to debate with parents the broader purposes of education beyond academic achievement and thus develop a shared mission. Arguably, this work is so important with potential for such gains that something will have to give to make time for it.
There is widespread acknowledgement that schools have got to change to enable them to meet the needs of children and young people in contemporary society. The current system makes it difficult for children to be known, valued and cared for as individuals: this much is acknowledged in the rhetoric about creating a more personalised curriculum.
Parents, however, 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. So what is the way forward?
The onus is on schools to set up structures to encourage meaningful dialogue with parents on a number of levels - such as regular class meetings, a parents' forum or council. It will also take time and much creative effort to find ways to draw in those parents who for a wide range of reasons are reticent about coming to the school.
It will take time because it is about changing the school culture. But there is no doubt - and this is borne out by research and overseas experience - that it will be worth the effort.
Fiona Carnie works for Human Scale Education. Her book Pathways to Child Friendly Schools: A Guide for Parents is published this month. To order a copy telephone 01275 332516