Ties that bind home and school

16th February 2001 at 00:00
An agreed commitment to achieve success will not happen overnight and schools will have to proceed step by step, says Patricia McDicken

* recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on parental responsibilities. Research shows that children achieve more when schools and parents work together and that parents can help more effectively when they know what the school is trying to do and how they can help. Home-school agreements can provide a vehicle, the ultimate goal being to raise achievement.

With a view to establishing such agreements in every primary, Glasgow last session invited schools to participate in a pilot project which attracted 11 volunteers. Money was available through the excellence fund to support two parent development officers to lead the pilot and provide information and assistance. A comparative case study was conducted to examine the processes each school went through in developing its home-school agreement, the extent to which it involved staff, parents and pupils, the contents of each agreement and how change was effected.

Some opted for signed agreements, while others opted for no signatures. Each school reported that the agreement provided a good starting point in discussion with pupils, parents and staff if difficulties arose and a regular method for reinforcing agreed good behaviour and attitudes.

Peggy McIntosh, headteacher of Kelvindale primary, reported that her newly formed pupil council "really enjoyed getting their teeth into it", while a parent at Langside primary said: "We are working together as a team - pupils, parents and staff - for success." A P7 pupil at Barlanark primary said: "It is good because the parents and teachers are working together to get children to do their best."

While there were some initial reservations among teachers and parents, these were overcome. Indeed, even in the short time that the agreements have been in place, schools have noticed positive improvements in relationships with parents and pupils. These schools will continue to implement their agreements and be avaiable to offer advice to other primaries.

The study concluded that a home-school agreement will work only if it is based on good communication, full consultation and negotiation and a shared understanding of the school's policies. It has to be part of a whole-school approach to partnership with parents and not a separate document handed out to parents.

Consistent use of an agreement as part of the school's approach can improve behaviour and gain greater commitment from pupils, but much will depend on the school's starting point in relationships with parents. To effect change, schools will have to proceed step by step through the process. Commitment from all parties will not happen overnight. It will rely on a determination to make it work and an atmosphere of trust and tolerance. As a result of the successful pilot, Glasgow has become the first authority in Scotland to introduce agreements in primary schools council-wide.

Because agreements are relatively new, there is little published material defining the procedure for maintaining agreements and advising on how to tackle potential problems. Schools will have to consider how to maintain their agreements through development planning and how to involve new parents.

Finally, there is a possibility that without the careful monitoring and encouragement given to the pilots, some schools might impose an agreement on parents without actually going through the consultation process. They might be tempted to take short cuts, not necessarily because the proposal lacks merit, but through shortage of time.

However, the main reasons for a pilot study are to test the water and lead the way for others to follow. The message coming across loud and clear from this venture is that only meaningful consultation with all parties will lead to success.

Patricia McDicken is a primary teacher seconded as parent development officer within Glasgow City Council. She is based at the Early Literacy Unit, St Paul's High, Glasgow. The thesis for her recent MSc degree was on home-school agreements.

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