Platform: Poor relations

22nd August 1997 at 01:00
If I were asked to send in a joke for the all-time Top 10, I would have no hesitation in deciding on my entry. "We didn't know he drank until one day he came home sober" is a classic one-liner by any standards. It suggests, too, the extent to which we can all come to see things as perfectly normal,until something makes us look at them in a fresh light.

In these terms, the White Paper serves as a sharp reminder of how narrow and sterile educational debate has been for so long. But it also bears indelible hallmarks of the recent past. So, like almost everyone I have spoken to, my reactions to it are a mixture of passionate enthusiasm for some of its main proposals, together with deep disappointment at some of the things that have been left in - or in some cases left out.

Most of all, I am delighted by the commitment to the much-heralded view that the quality of our education service matters - to everyone. Also by the sense of energy and a determination to make things happen "for the many, not just the few".

Less explicit, but equally welcome and long overdue, is the growing recognition that the only people who can ultimately improve schools are those who work in and with them. Not on their own, of course, but with the active co-operation and willing support of the key partners involved.

As Anita Roddick says (TES, August 8), the contribution of pupils themselves must be at the heart of this. Coming down on "under-performing" teachers like the proverbial ton of bricks and hectoring a few disaffected parents by imposing home-school contracts may look good and sound convincing. Not only is there precious little evidence that this actually works, however, it is probably counter-produc tive.

I have just finished writing the first part of the evaluation for Share, an imaginative home-school initiative designed to strengthen the educational partnership between Year 1 children, their teachers and families.

As part of my work I visited 20 first schools, in five very different LEAs. I met more than 200 parents and children from a wide range of backgrounds.

I was struck, as always, by the incredible contortions that parents and other carers were prepared to undergo to make time to encourage and support their children's classroom learning at home, in very practical "hands on" ways, because they were encouraged to believe it would help them. It certainly did that.

Here, as elsewhere, there is clear evidence that families have a crucial and continuing influence on children's attitudes, behaviour and achievement. So there can be no effective strategy for improving schools that ignores their contribution - the White Paper seems to have only half-digested this.

Proposals to create extra parent governors and give parents a place on local education authority committees are a welcome step in the right direction. But, on their own, such proposals seem piecemeal and puny and unlikely to bring about the changes necessary to enable the vast majority of hard-pressed families to support their children's learning more effectively.

Government initiatives need to be more responsive to the circumstances of contemporary family life. Put simply, bringing up kids is a tough and challenging job for many of us some of the time and for some of us most of the time. The task is also complicated by the enormous diversity of arrangements that exist for bringing up, and caring for children in our society. Most families need the Government, (or their children's school), to start laying down the law about matters such as homework and behaviour as much as they need a hole in the head.

If home-school agreements are to be productive, they need to provide a framework, based upon mutual trust and growing confidence, in which teachers, parents and pupils genuinely attempt to work out what each can reasonably expect from the others and how they will work together.

All parents should have a voice in their children's education, not just the most willing, the most obvious and the most vocal; parents (virtually without exception in my experience) want their children to work hard and do well at school.They also want, and are entitled to know, how they are doing and how they, as parents, can help.

Parents are given plenty of information, but it is not always useful. I realised this when listening to a teacher patiently explaining a key stage 2 assessment to a boy's father. At the end, the man thought for a moment, then said: "But what I really want to know is - is it a bike or a bollocking?"

The best definition of educational partnership that I know is also the simplest. It comes, unsurprisingly, from a parent, who said: "When teachers, parents and children work together, everybody benefits - especially the kids."

Finding ways of opening these possibilities for all parents, regardless of culture, background and circumstance is a major and challenging task. The White Paper contains some starting points and some examples of good practice, collected rather as a magpie collects glittering objects.

But its view is unco-ordinated and lacks penetration. Parents are still seen as external props, rather than an integral part of a school's main purposes and efforts. Neither is there any sense of how relationships between families and schools need to change as pupils get older.

What should the next move be? The Government needs a coherent strategy matched, (Sorry, David Blunkett!) by appropriate resources, which would give home-school work greater emphasis, co-ordinate existing efforts and support further development. It would:

l define a school's work with parents as a key feature of its planning and development (reinforced through its school development plans, inspections, in-service training programmes etc);

l establish effective work with parents as a key area in the initial training and continuing support of teachers. At the moment teachers are simply not trained to work with adults at all;

l make better use of extensive good practice in this area. The developmental role of council-administered programmes - including grants for educational support and training, Section 11 (language support grants) and the single regeneration budget (which funds projects in disadvantaged areas) - has made a key contribution here;

l initiate research and development. While we know that the involvement of parents improves children's schoolwork and behaviour, we need to look at ways of assessing its quality and effectiveness;

l give all parents a collective voice that incorporates their concerns, and values their contributions.

Britain is virtually the only major European country in which parents have no collective rights - at classroom, school, regional or national level. Elsewhere, parent organisations and centres have both political recognition and extensive material support from their respective governments. While organisations such as the Campaign for State Education and the Advisory Centre for Education continue to make important and distinctive contributions, there is clearly a need for a bold, national initiative here. The necessity to develop a genuinely representative national parents' body remains an urgent task.

Not that this would necessarily make life easier for the Government. Far from it. But it is only by finding ways of bringing together the different experiences and the combined efforts of schools, families and others that we will make significant advances. "Benefiting the many, not just the few" is an ideal that can, and should, apply as much to parents as to pupils.

John Bastiani is a freelance consultant on family-school matters.

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