Not easy to reach harmony

31st March 2000 at 01:00
For home-school partnerships to work teachers need more training and firmer boundaries, according to Sheila Dainton and Joe Hallgarten.

PARTNERSHIP is a slippery business. Strip the gloss off the fashionable words (co-operation, collaboration and the rest) and you'll usually find the same nuts and bolts all relationships are made of. Sometimes - but not often - it's love at first sight. Other times, partnerships can nosedive into a kind of mutual suppression of loathing.

No one has ever said that developing good partnerships between teachers and parents would be easy. But, in the vast majority of cases, that has not stopped teachers and parents from trying to get the "partnership thing" right - or, at the very least, better than it has been. Developing and sustaining teacher-parent partnerships is a challenge in its own right. And it's particularly tricky when, in spite of its good intentions, the Government keeps reverting to the culture of naming and shaming.

In undertaking our joint study (TES, March 24), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Institute of Public Policy Research had one main aim: we wanted to find out more about teachers' attitudes towards parental involvement in schools. We also wanted to do more than create headlines and, through a detailed analysis of the issues, we intend to use the results to tease out policy options that could benefit schools and families.

Our survey reveals the extent to which teachers acknowledge the crucial role parents play in the education of their children. It is clear from the extensive comments many teachers made that learning at home should not be merely an extension of "schooling". It should be different and distinctive.

From the child's point of view, parent-supported learning should not necessarily mean more of the same - many already suffer from worksheet fatigue. From the parents' angle, supporting learning at home should involve considerably more than the fraught nightly ritual of policing homework.

Many teachers are, of course, parents too, and can see the situation both ways on. There is, nevertheless, concern that the educational roles of home and school have become too blurred.

Every social policy initiative, from reducing teenage pregnancy and drug-taking, to the introduction of citizenship in schools, renders the boundaries more permeable. But what happens when things go wrong? The finger of blame has to be pointed somewhere. More often than not, teachers top the list of usual suspects.

Instead of buck-passing, what is needed is a shift in society's attitudes towards the development of young people - one that spreads responsibility beyond the convenient scapegoats.

The scant attention gven to home-school issues in initial teacher and in-service training, is a key message from our survey. Too often, it is assumed that the skills needed to manage a classroom and to support learning are the same as those needed for communicating with parents.

Clearly, they are not. As one primary teacher in the study said: "Not one person has had experiences of - or knows of anyone who has had - training.

Everyone has learned 'on the hoof'. Every non-qualified teacher's nightmare is the first parents' evening."

Across the country, many teachers are going the extra mile to reach out to parents, developing rich relationships that improve the whole school environment, but above all impact on pupils' learning. Yet most teachers are doing this in spite of their training - not because of it.

As with so many strategies, the Government may be basing its expectations on the exceptional. Training needs to be improved for the average young teacher entering his or her first job with only limited experience of communicating with adults.

Liaison with parents is a professional requirement for both students and newly-qualified teachers, but most trainees are cosseted from these experiences during teaching practices.

Our survey tapped a wellspring of optimism and enthusiasm for "training for partnership". This should encourage action from the General Teaching Council and a revitalised Teacher Training Agency.

Most teachers reacted against the suggestion in Excellence in Schools that "parents should have a greater say in the way schools are run". Strongest opinions were reserved to oppose the idea that the appraisal process should take parents' views into account. This is an issue we intend to explore further.

At first sight, it could be seen as knee-jerk defensiveness on the part of teachers. We do not think this is the case. From the teachers' viewpoint, there is no shortage of advice - and certainly not a dearth of directives - on how schools should be run.

Further empowering yet another constituency, and an extremely diverse one at that, could be the last straw. But if the Government is serious about its commitment to "intervention in inverse proportion to success", parent and teacher power could increase in harmony. The trade-off may not be between teachers and parents, but between local autonomy and central prescription.

Sheila Dainton is a policy officer at the ATL. Joe Hallgarten is a research fellow at the IPPR. If you wish to contribute your views on family-school relationships, please contact or Teachers and Parents: A survey of teachers' views is available from ATL, 7 Northumberland Street, London WC2N 5DA

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