In the second of two articles on home-school agreements, Victoria Neumark talks to critics of the proposals while Mark Whitehead looks at the reservations of staff working with ethnic-minority and special needs children
About one in every five children in Britain's schools is thought to have special educational needs, ranging from visual impairment through learning difficulties to behavioural problems. In some schools as many as one-quarter of pupils may have special needs.
With so many pupils requiring individual attention, it is difficult to see how one home-school agreement setting out the same duties and responsibilities for all pupils and parents could be of much use.
In fact, says Melian Mansfield, special needs trainer and chair of the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education (CASE), it could undermine the individual plans which are drawn up as part of the statementing process for such children.
What is more, the agreement is likely to have been written by a small group of people attempting to pin down for everyone something which ought to depend very much on the circumstances of the individual child. Presented to parents as a fait accompli when their child enters the school, an "agreement" may replace much-needed personal discussion.
"Home-school agreements have no relevance at all in the relationship between parents and teachers," Mrs Mansfield says. "You need a dialogue, so that as soon as a child enters the school there is a relationship between the school and the family. The best way for people to do that is to talk to each other, not to have a written document which can become legalistic. It's likely to create arguments about what is written on the paper rather than a positive and helpful discussion about the child's progress."
The aim of home-school agreements as set out in the Schools Bill, says Mrs Mansfield, is to define the aims and responsibilities of the parents, child and school.
At the moment, she feels, there is a danger that families of children with special needs may feel contractually bound by their signature (although the documents will have no legal status) but without any muscle to make schools fulfil their side of the bargain.
"The danger of a written agreement is that parents are simply asked to sign a piece of paper," says Mrs Mansfield.
"If the school has the time and the resources, the staff can sit down with parents and the child and discuss what it is all about. But the danger is that that will not happen."