Parents need to know the rules too

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Support from families is vital to maintain school discipline, so make sure everyone understands the system

Support from families is vital to maintain school discipline, so make sure everyone understands the system

"Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them."

Oscar Wilde's insight into the complex relationship between children and parents acts as a timely reminder following the publication of Sir Alan Steer's latest report this week. The Government's behaviour tsar stresses the importance of parents and carers in helping schools maintain discipline.

Of course, he's right. We all know that successful schools are good at building strong partnerships with families and that all schools benefit if they have backing from home when dealing with challenging behaviour.

But as Wilde points out, being a parent isn't easy. Most parents want to support schools, but it is a very human response to feel that criticism of your child is a criticism of you. Parents don't need schools to tell them what they usually already know about their children. But for schools, there is clearly the need to raise concerns.

This is why many parents become defensive. For some, particularly those struggling to maintain discipline at home, going into denial and supporting a child who is probably in the wrong can seem like an attractive option in the short term. But, as we all know, there comes a point when reality has to be faced.

The trouble is the only training most parents have to draw on is their own experience as a child. This compounds the stark reality: some are ill- equipped to fulfil the role that schools demand of them. So what can we do to make it easier for parents to support us in maintaining discipline?

A sense of a shared purpose is important. Staff, students and parents need to have a clear idea about what the school is trying to achieve and why. It is about creating an ethos focused on a joint endeavour, a shared journey to a destination everyone recognises.

Success lies in making sure the school's behaviour policy focuses on pupils accepting responsibility for their own behaviour and learning. A school should aim to support them in developing self-discipline based on mutual respect, clear boundaries and a consistent system. For this to work, it is crucial that staff learn to manage behaviour effectively. The challenge for school leaders is to make sure any procedures are clearly understood by all those involved, especially parents.

Giving parents relevant information through a home-school partnership agreement is important. When things go wrong and a punishment is applied, being able to refer parents to your school's published policies often helps defuse a situation, taking the emotion out of a decision and making it easier for parents to align with the school. The focus can then move on to how the school and parents can support the child in the future.

The second advantage of making information available to parents is that they can inform the school when its procedures have not been followed. As long as parents feel able to raise concerns without the school becoming defensive, this feedback loop provides a powerful tool in maintaining a consistent approach and reinforces a joint responsibility for discipline. But if this is to work effectively, staff need to know they will be held accountable for implementing a school's procedures.

So what about the pupils themselves? When things do go wrong, they are quick to notice how they are dealt with and will remember what action was taken, whether the misdemeanour was their own or that of a peer. What matters is that the system is followed fairly by staff. Recognition by pupils that they have been treated justly is an essential part of any restoration of relationships. Being treated more harshly than they know that the system dictates sends a message to the child that the member of staff has some reason to pick on them, which makes the way forward more challenging.

But for those parents struggling to maintain good standards of behaviour at home, clarity and consistency are not enough. Schools need to identify these families as early as possible and work with the local authority and other children's professionals - such as parent support advisers, social workers, school-based police officers, and child and family workers - to support parents in managing poor behaviour.

It is also important to recognise when parents are deliberately undermining a school's authority. As a last resort, these families should be held accountable and sanctions, such as parenting orders or fines should be imposed. Recent legislation - on the power to detain pupils after hours, for example - has strengthened schools' ability to impose discipline where it is not forthcoming from parents.

Everyone acknowledges that clear expectations and consistency help promote good behaviour. For most parents, this clarity is all they need to support schools effectively. But we need to acknowledge the barriers facing those families who find it hard to confront their children's poor behaviour. Of course, schools must play their part in addressing these difficulties, but they should also continue to work closely with other children's professionals if they are to provide the support these families need to become more effective parents.

Andy Buck's `Making School Work: A Practical Approach to Secondary School Leadership', is published by Greenwich Exchange.

Andy Buck, head of the Eastbrook-Jo Richardson partnership in Barking and Dagenham, East London, in collaboration with Ges Smith, head of school at Jo Richardson.

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