Partnerships in expectation

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Cameron Munro explores efforts by teachers, parents and pupils to find a sound basis for homeschool agreements.

There is a new trend in home-school links. In spite of criticism and concerns about legally binding contracts, some schools, particularly in the secondary sector, have started to develop formal links with parents where responsibilities are being shared.

What is encouraging about these agreements is the move away from entitlements, rights and duties towards mutual expectations. Most often this has been developed for the transition from primary to secondary. This is useful, as it is usually a time when parents back off or are compelled to back off by embarrassed children who cringe at the prospect of a parent appearing at the school. It is not a cool thing to do.

Earnock High School in South Lanarkshire and Carrick Academy in South Ayrshire have developed homeschool agreements which outline a number of shared responsibilities between home and school. These cover a variety of areas, including behaviour, homework and reporting. The format is two columns titled home and school, with expectations outlined in each. Carrick Academy's includes an additional page for parents to sign.

Chryston High School in North Lanark has also developed an agreement that focuses on the transition stage to secondary and spells out the school's aims to promote sound learning and safety, encourage good habits, and build the school community. The agreement is used as a basis for explaining the school rules to parents and students. The language is non-threatening, with parents being asked "would you please. . ." The Chryston High agreement covers a wide range of matters, from the child's health, school behaviour and pupil attendance to parental attendance at parent-teacher meetings. It is an attractively packaged document that does much to make parents feel they are being valued as part of the education process.

One interesting development has been student participation. In Aberdeen, St Machar Academy has an agreement which focuses on four areas - homework, discipline, uniform and behaviour. The document has three columns covering all the participants and is a three-way partnership of expectations.

What is remarkable about the St Machar agreement is that it is linked to a meeting of the parent, student and headteacher Len Taylor. He makes a personal commitment to interview all parents of incoming Secondary 1 students. In a school of around 1,200 students, the first year intake this year covered 280 families. He starts in May and continues until all parents have been interviewed.

It is a massive commitment, but one that appears to pay dividends. Staff believe that the agreement has two main benefits. First, in sharing expectations with students and parents, and second, in reinforcing particular issues if they need to go back to parents.

The real test of any agreement is that it serves the needs of the young person. One primary school in East Ayrshire has taken the opportunity to start with the pupils. Kilmaurs primary has developed Kilmaurs Values, a document which outlines the school rules.

The document lists seven values to help promote a more positive approach to behaviour. These are discussed with children at the beginning of every session and children are asked to sign the agreement to try and keep them secure. Teachers also have the option of signing.

The values are straightforward enough: * good manners and respect for others; * honesty and truthfulness; * a tidy school; * quiet and calm corridors and stairs; * friendly safe place; * a smart appearance; * respect for our belongings.

It could be argued that this needs to be further developed and shared with parents.

Any agreement, either formal or informal, needs a clear focus. One suggestion would be the development of an achievement agreement. It is important that this is undertaken with the full and active participation of the student. The pupil and student council could play a central part in developing a draft format that could be the basis of discussion with other students and staff.

A school board might also undertake a similar role, with the next parent meeting serving as an opportunity to elicit the views of parents as to the content.

Before embarking on developing an agreement, schools should consider carefully what steps need to be taken (see panel). Staff in schools, shell-shocked by initiatives, will rightly express concern about yet another, and senior managers will want to spend time talking them through, and in particular identifying responsibilities. The examples outlined above illustrate the important role of the headteacher, but it has to be a whole-school venture to make an impact.

There may be key stages in a student's school career where this would be advantageous. The transition points of starting primary and secondary would obviously be important, but subject choice in S2 and the start of S5 might be worth considering.

Any agreement can be covered as part of the next steps in an annual discussion with parent, student and staff. Stephen Covey, the author of Principle-centered leader (Simon and Schuster) has argued that communication is primarily a function of trust and not technique, and if an agreement is to be more than cosmetic, it must carry the trust of all the participants. This requires not just time to talk, but a belief that there are benefits to be gained.

Steps towards an agreement

1 Identify the ways in which an agreement will qualitatively add to the existing home-school links.

2 Clarify what an agreement will achieve or assist with.

3 Identify the areas staff would wish to highlight as shared responsibilities or opportunities to collaborate with parents.

4 Ascertain the optimum time for an agreement to be developed and released.

5 Identify the contingencies that are necessary.

6 Review the style of wording and the format used.

7 Identify ways in which parents and student can be participants in the development.

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