Strategies for (very) occasional use

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Mike Fielding says good behaviour contracts just don't work. Like many of the ideas currently being run up flagpoles to see which voters salute, the idea of home-school contracts, having served whatever electoral purpose they had, should be returned whence it came. Which, in this case, is the drawer marked "Strategies for occasional use", kept by most schools to help them deal with the multifarious circumstances they face from time to time.

Although some schools have found across-the-board contracts a useful way with which to maintain relations, it is naive to imagine that exhortation will encourage the rest of us to follow suit or that suitable legislation can be framed to make us fall in line. There are too many philosophical objections, quite apart from a string of practical difficulties.

The first of these is that everything a contract might contain should already be part of the normal relationship between school and parents. Does any school really need, for example, to enshrine in a contract that it will "provide a balanced curriculum and meet individual needs"? And will it really help for parents to promise to "try to see our child gets to school on time".

The families who will be able to meet this promise most easily are those for whom it is self-evident anyway, and those who already find it difficult won't be helped by having it written down and signed.

Any contract should be freely entered into, so a second objection must be raised on behalf of those families reluctant to sign precisely because they doubt their capacity to deliver their side of such a detailed bargain. If signing the contract becomes one of the admissions criteria for all schools, what happens to those children whose parents won't, or can't, sign?

And we know which social groups they will come from. Certainly not the more affluent and educated to whom the notion of a contract might seem an attractive way of pinning their child's school to the floor.

Third, there is the question of definition. What precisely is meant by "the school will try to care for the child's safety and happiness" or "parents shall try to support the child in homework and other learning"? And, if there is no way of properly defining the content of a contract, then how does anyone know if it's being adhered to or not?

Which brings us to the main practical difficulty. To be effective a contract must, in the final analysis, have sanctions, but, unless we are to be weighed under by a further mountain of law, it is difficult to see how this contract could be enforced against either schools or parents who fail to maintain some aspect of it. Could a child be expelled because her parents failed "to let the school know of problems that might affect her work or behaviour"? And what advice will a parent get about suing a school that appeared not to have "ensured the child achieves his full potential as a member of the school community"?

Discipline in many schools is a problem. We don't need the Education Secretary Gillian Shephard to tell us that. In part, perhaps, it stems from inadequate parenting, and parents should be expected to have some responsibility for the way their children behave. But to assume they can be made responsible by signing a piece of paper is to ignore completely the reality of the way many parents - particularly in the areas of deprivation at which this proposal must be aimed - live their lives. This is a contract which, for thousands of families, will not be worth the paper it's written on.

Schools which genuinely want to advance relations with parents will look to more subtle and positive strategies. And they will also accept that with many families it will inevitably be an unbalanced partnership in which the school may have to exercise more responsibilities than rights.

When those schools do take the home-school contract out of its drawer, they use it to meet specific challenges, normally on a short-term basis and to identify attainable targets for low-achieving or disaffected students. Parents and child must agree if the contract is to work.

To think that this approach can, or should, be extended into a long-term, compulsory method for improving the discipline and attainment of students is a mistake. The fact that all the examples quoted are said to be in present contracts is not likely to change that situation.

Mike Fielding is the principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon

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