Partnerships not contracts

29th August 1997 at 01:00
Home-school contracts will put weapons in the hands of those parents who already give teachers a hard time, writes Joan Sallis

We must be grateful that the Government has decided not to make the award of a school place dependent on the signing of a home-school contract (TES, August 15). It will be a reprieve for poor Billy, the multiple failure who won't get into Mensa Mansions because of his IQ, or Church Cloisters because he wasn't baptised, or Lathe Lodge for his prowess in technology, or Trombone Towers on his music. It would have been the last straw if he couldn't manage Community Common or Partnership Place because his parents wouldn't sign the contract.

Nevertheless, the letter Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett wrote to local authorities on August 8 and the press release of August 11 indicate that the Education Bill will require every school to draw up such a contract, for signature by parents soon after admission. To quote Baroness Blackstone: "Strong partnerships will be formed which will give an enormous boost to the performance of pupils."

When I heard the phrase "home-school contract" used by Conservative ministers (it is far from new - the Taylor Committee spent hours discussing and rejecting the idea 20 years ago), I voted it the worst idea so far. It is sad now to hear it from so many people with whom I would agree about almost everything else. I believe it threatens the work of thousands who have devoted their lives to the organic growth of trust and understanding between parent and school. Good relationships are not made in formal documents any more than living plants are made in factories.

I hope I don't need to prove my commitment to a better understanding between parents and teachers. But to be real and lasting such an understanding will embody mutual respect; awareness of each other's problems; willingness to give and take, and fail and try again; and a shared determination to improve the child's learning.

Schools work very hard at this, have many setbacks and are often under considerable stress, as indeed are many homes. They - the schools - have problems with a few children almost programmed to fail by the lack of home support. As a result, they clutch at the contracts idea as though it had some element of magic. You cannot blame them, especially if you are a school governor looking back, when a child reaches the end of the road to permanent exclusion, on a sorry tale of conciliatory overtures rejected, messages misunderstood, help refused, and finally animosity feeding on fear, guilt and frustration. If I thought this was the solution, I would be 100 per cent behind it.

But lasting partnerships are born of goodwill and survive on hard work. Would it improve the success rate of life partnerships if we first had to sign up on who was to blame when there was no bread for breakfast, or how many times you could leave the cap off the toothpaste without sanctions? Few of us would reach the altar or the double bed.

The blame culture is not helpful in any kind of relationship, and unfortunately our new Government has inherited just a flavour of that culture from the last - which sometimes seemed to pin all its hopes for school improvement on exposing failure, while allowing many structures for positive encouragement to wither away. It was the sun, not the wind which in the fable won the contest to get the traveller to take off his coat. It is the sun which in relationships melts away fear and misunderstanding, wins the confidence in which people unwind, stretch their limbs, let their defences drop and feel empowered.

The partnerships that really work are between those who enter into them freely and as equal partners. Relationships which link a strong and a weak partner have as many tensions as an engineering product that relies on a link between a strong and a weak component.

The school is still the powerful partner, and those who have power have to give and give again if they want results. The winning of parents' trust requires respect, patience and understanding, not blame. And some day, perhaps, the idea of a weaker partner will be no more, and a teacher will be able to say "I can't do the job without you" and mean it. Nearly all schools now make parents welcome. Very few make them feel needed.

Most parents want their children to do well - at school and in life. Goodness knows they are well aware of the penalties for failing. Some don't know how they can help or are wrestling with other problems which take all their energy. Some feel that teachers will blame them for their children's shortcomings. Quite a few have lost control of what their children do. Many are well aware of their deficiencies as parents and find reminders unhelpful. And any home can sometimes have an alarm clock that fails to ring, the school jumper in the wash, the puppy that's ripped up the worksheet. All need acceptance of their imperfections - don't teachers have off-days? - and praise when praise can be given, lots of encouragement and regular information about how they can help.

Many programmes for home-school partnership which were producing very encouraging results have been wound up in the past 15 years or so because they were costly. Home-school contracts cost next to nothing, but I fear that they will merely put weapons in the hands of those parents who already give teachers a hard time, while driving away those who were just about beginning to come closer. I don't believe they would help at all where home and school are in conflict, and where there is goodwill they are unnecessary.

Now a home-school policy - that's a different matter, and all schools should have one. That would be something to remind schools of what they need to do every day to win parents' understanding and convince parents that schools really mean it. Funnily enough, in the bit of the press release which is almost a draft for inclusion in the new Bill, you could make the substitution of "policy" for "contract" quite easily. By that simple gesture schools could be encouraged to show leadership - which is very different from authority.

Joan Sallis is national president of the Campaign for State Education and was a parent member of the Taylor Committee on school governance

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