National councils up and running
The Irish Constitution identifies the family as being the "primary and natural educator of the child," and efforts to develop strong relationships between home and school have intensified in recent years. Ireland's new education legislation involves parents at all levels - in school, in school governance, and at national level. Already, the creation of national parents' councils for the primary and secondary sectors has increased the amount of influence they have on policy-making.
In recent years, the department of education has instituted a number of initiatives. These include: introducing boards of management to govern primary schools, with two members voted in by parents; setting up an elected national parents' council; establishing a home-school-community liaison scheme in areas of disadvantage; and introducing a pre-school enrichment programme (Early Start), which includes a high degree of parental involvement. The department has also launched "Breaking the Cycle,", an initiative which targets schools in Ireland's most disadvantaged areas. They receive extra money to work with parents.
The setting up of the two national parents' councils has probably been the most important development so far. The councils represent the views of parents and foster co-operation between parents, teachers and school management. The parents' councils can also now influence the updating of the national curriculum through their members who sit on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and on its individual subject committees.
Irish parents, like many others, are expected to support their children's learning at home, and help out in sports and cultural activities, and on educational tours and outings. It is rare, however, to find parents helping out in the classroom. Schools at all levels must provide written reports on pupils' progress - a minimum of once a year in primary schools, and twice a year in second-level schools.
Training and education for parents is a strong theme. The primary parents' council has developed a highly successful parent education programme, which has been designed by the parents themselves.
* Our Lady Immaculate primary school is for pupils aged between four and 12 is located in a Dublin suburb which has many problems - poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction and a high proportion of single-parent families.
As a result the school has been allocated a government-funded home-school liaison officer, and also runs an Early Start programme for 60 pre-school children.
During the past year, the Early Start teachers have had lengthy individual meetings with all parents, in order to give them ideas as to what they can do at home to support their children, and to explain what they are trying to achieve in the classes.
Parents have proved to be intensely interested, and most have already asked for copies of the checklists used by the teachers to assess the progress of the children, so that they can work through them at home.
Several parents involved in the programme have been stimulated into taking special classes offered at the school as part of the programme. A few have even carried on to college courses and recognised qualifications.