Three signatures, one aim

18th October 1996 at 01:00
One side of A4 is all it takes to set out what is expected of pupils, parents and school at a comprehensive near Walsall, West Midlands.

The "home-school contract of partnership" at Shelfield community school, in use for the past four years, could provide a model for Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's plans to improve pupils' behaviour.

"For pupils to achieve success at school it is important that parents, pupils and the school are able to work together," it begins, "each party having an equally important part to play in the partnership."

Parents are expected, for example, to support the school and join in regular discussions about the child's progress. The pupil's list includes working to the best of their ability, wearing uniform and being punctual. The school's obligations include providing a "safe, well-ordered and caring environment" and keeping parents informed of their child's progress.

Headteacher Andrew Collins introduced the contracts shortly after taking over in 1991. He had been involved in research into home-school links and had begun a campaign to attract more pupils - rolls had fallen to a disastrous 530 and threatened to close Shelfield.

Mr Collins saw parents as crucial in the drive to improve Shelfield's reputation and boost numbers.

Every year, parents with a child due to start in the autumn are invited to a meeting in the summer term, with their son or daughter, to raise any questions or worries. At the meeting the parents, the child and one of the school's two directors of studies sign the contract.

Both parents and school keep a copy. Once a year, at one of three annual parent-pupil-teacher meetings, the contract is reviewed to check that everyone is happy. It is then signed again, renewing the commitment on all sides.

"There's nothing revolutionary about it," says Tina Heafield, director of lower school studies. "But it sets out explicitly what would otherwise be left unstated."

Like all schools, Shelfield has its fair share of difficult pupils and the contract is often invoked in dealing with them and their parents.

In the latest such case, a 13-year-old girl repeatedly failed to do her homework and was eventually given detention, but her mother wrote saying she would not accept it. Mrs Heafield explained that the contract she had signed included a commitment to support the school.

"She agreed in the end," says Mrs Heafield. "It was a classic case of a child going home and not telling Mum the whole story."

In another episode, a pupil refused to wear the school blazer, apparently with the parents' support. A letter home, again citing the contract, worked quickly.

Parents and pupils seem to accept the contracts and none, apparently, has ever refused to sign. "It means she knows what is expected of her," says Susan Lewis mother of Jennifer. "She has made a commitment and she knows if she breaks it she will be in trouble."

Jennifer, who is 13, says: "If I didn't sign it they wouldn't have anything against me to show that I agreed to behave properly."

The real test of the contracts' value will be in the next year or two when the first pupils to sign them approach the end of compulsory schooling when most serious disciplinary offences usually take place. Last year three pupils were permanently excluded from Shelfield.

"I can see it being used with Year 10 pupils when they face possible exclusion," says Mr Collins. "The governors will be able to say: 'Look, you signed this but you're not keeping to your side of the bargain. Why should we keep ours?' I think it could be a very effective negotiating tool."

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