Cooperation between school and home is the politicians' latest quick fix for improving standards. But it is not easy to involve parents constructively, discovers Wendy Wallace
Just as a certificate from the registry office doesn't guarantee a happy marriage, contracts which set out parents' responsibilities to make sure their offspring do their homework and don't play truant can't ensure cooperation between schools and families. The Government and the Labour party both expound the benefits of these home-school contracts, but what does this mean for the often delicate relationships between teachers and parents?
John Bastiani, long-time specialist in the subject and author of a new Royal Society of Arts report on home-school links, would prefer politicians to speak of agreements rather than contracts because parents see contracts as a stick to beat them with.
"There is no point in compulsion," he says. The real use of home-school contracts is to provide a focus for three-way discussion between pupils, teachers and parents.
The days are long gone when a white line in the playground halted parents in their tracks. But in the minds of teachers and parents the lines may linger. Even where schools genuinely want to involve families in children's education, they often struggle to find a meaningful way of doing so.
"We used to talk about it endlessly," says one former parent governor of an inner-city comprehensive, "but then you'd have a parents' evening and only 20 parents would turn up and they'd be the ones whose children were achieving anyway. We never came up with any definitive ways of involving parents more."
Barrie Wyse, deputy head of Archbishop Thurstan School in Hull, has been committed to improving the links between his pupils, the school and the community since it opened in 1988. The school is confident enough to ask questions of its parents and a flick through the response file illustrates some of the difficulties.
A questionnaire in the last academic year asked parents to comment on "what you think our school does well" and "what you think we could do better". Responses ranged from the non-availability of wholemeal bread at lunchtime, via a suggestion that pupils who misbehave be kept in a separate classroom "permanently", to "I think it's disgraceful when a pupil becomes pregnant and the teachers say they will stand by them".
But the first questionnaire to come back said at the end "thank you for caring enough to ask us what we think." That was the remark Wyse took most to heart. "As a teacher, I've always found contact with parents valuable and observed that they do too," he says. "But the opportunities tend to be limited and rather formal. I could see that so much could be opened up - to the benefit of both sides."
A Parents in Partnership group - whose meetings are attended by parents, teachers, the chair of governors and the educational welfare officer - has been running for five years at the school and has slowly evolved a range of policies, including an anti-bullying strategy. The group has produced booklets for parents of new pupils and information on home-school links, GCSE courses and policies on discipline and rewards. The school periodically holds workshops for children with special needs and their parents, and all parents are explicitly invited to help out in classrooms.
In fact, few parents do enter the classrooms at Archbishop Thurstan but that is no measure of the strength of contact, says Barrie Wyse. "The great mistake often made is thinking in terms of what happens in school. It's more relevant to think about how we can help parents support their children at home. The aim is for as many parents as possible to feel they are involved in some way. " And the parents who do come in to classrooms signal to others that they have a place in the school if they want it, he emphasises.
The scheme can indirectly help some of the most disaffected pupils by enabling education welfare officer Elizabeth Wood to put pressure on the parents of truanting children to accompany them. "It's what's said on the estate that counts," she says. "If one parent says the school is tackling bullying, is helping pupils with special needs, is willing to listen, it does help - because some of the parents have had unhappy school experiences themselves, and condone their children's absences."
When teachers at Archbishop Thurstan were asked in 1989 if they would have parents in their classrooms, half said no. The other half said yes, if they could specify the day and the lesson. Now, all staff at the school are willing to have parents in their classroom at any time.
"Initially, there's a lot of defensiveness on both sides," says Barrie Wyse. "Teachers say 'I'm worried that the parent will see such and such going on.' Whereas parents, if they do witness an upsetting incident, are more likely to say 'I understand much better now what teachers have to cope with'."
In John Bastiani's report, Taking a Few Risks, these are the kind of risks he refers to. "It's trying things out, developing new skills, letting parents take initiatives," he says. "Teachers have little or no training to work with parents. But if parents think initiatives are genuine you can experiment, even if it doesn't work out."
Primary schools find it much easier than secondaries to involve parents. The mechanics are far less complicated when most parents arrive twice a day to deliver and collect their offspring. In contrast most adolescents would "die" at the thought of their parents popping up at the school gate, never mind in the classroom. Primary parents are also more likely to feel confident about their reading and writing skills to help out in class.
But does the occasional invitation - and a hasty questionnaire the month before the Office for Standards in Education inspection - really constitute a home-school link?
"My children's school prides itself on being open," says one mother of two girls. "But if I ever want to talk to a teacher I feel that I'm taking up valuable time. You end up following them round the playground, they never seem to have time to sit down with you."
Jane Edmund, headteacher for 10 years of Redhills Combined School in Exeter, makes extra efforts in home-school liaison. There are no nurseries or playgroups in the catchment area - "just a lot of houses and stressed families" - so it is not unusual for a child to arrive in reception with no experience of pre-school.
The school, in a modest way, tries to compensate through a weekly open afternoon called "library time", in which book sharing and phonetic games are tried out. Demand and need for these facilities are such, says Edmund, that she "could run it all day and every day. But I would have to take the library out of use to do it." Redhills also runs a parent workshop with a local college, where parents are taught how to prepare children for school.
Teachers go into pupils' homes too. The reception teacher and classroom assistant visit all children at home before admission: while the assistant talks to the parent, the teacher talks to the child. "It's very important for children to meet the teacher on home ground," she says, "otherwise it's totally the teacher in control."
Do parents welcome home visits? Only one has refused in 10 years, says Jane Edmund. "We couch the letter in terms of how it will help the child," she says. "And no matter how poor the family is in terms of social skills, they all want their child to do well in school. They all want it."
Taking a Few Risks by John Bastiani (Pounds 12.50 plus Pounds 2.50 pp) is available from Lesley James, Royal Society of Arts, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6EZ. Tel: 0171 930 5115.