Turn paper pile into partnership

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Parents should be more involved in their child's education, and the extra expense created by consultation processes would be well worth it, argues David Hill

In the last few months chairs and clerks of school boards have received some 30-40 documents that create a pile of A4 paper 5cm thick. I suspect that in most schools the bulk of these is either packed away in a cupboard or binned.

There is a school of thought which says that the focus of parents' concern is their child and the first point of contact their child's teacher. This implies that local authority and Scottish Executive documents have no immediate relevance to the child's progress and that attention should be given to raising rates of parents' participation at that level.

I think this view is half right. Parents must be involved in their child's education because if the teacher or school or system gets it wrong, it is the parents who have to pick up the pieces.

More could be done to secure their participation. Parents can hardly be partners on the basis of a single written report and one - or at best two - interviews a year. Homework and homework diaries are useful but do not provide a complete picture of a child's work, and it is difficult to gauge the standard of a child's work without anything to compare it with.

But to confine parents' role to child level is to ignore two important issues. One is the need for parents to see their child as a member of a community and the school as part of a national system of education.

It is unfortunate that two of the most significant initiatives taken by the Scottish Office and Executive over the last 10 years have played down this wider perspective. Parental choice of school encourages parents to suppose that their main function is to choose a school and that they have no duty to their local community. And the policy of inclusion encourages parents - and children - to suppose that what an individual child needs, he must get, regardless of the effect on other children and the teachers.

Parents' co-operation is essential if the system is to work well. We need people who have a stake in education but do not stand to lose their job or promotion if they make criticisms or suggest alternatives. But their role should be extended to school, local authority and national level.

We already have institutions that allow parents to play an extended role. Unfortunately they do not command widespread support or even confidence among the parent body. The reaction to the Scottish School Board Association's claim to represent all parents on the issue of Clause 28, and the pitiful levels of participation in school boards and parent teacher associations, are evidence enough. We need to develop these so that they earn greater support.

We need to change the culture of consultation. At the moment, parents can read papers, attend eetings and make any number of recommendations, but they can rarely feel that their efforts have made a difference. Many must wonder why they bother.

A more worthwhile consultation process would brief parents on all the necessary background, present alternative policies and courses of action, debate alternatives, and explain why parental preferences may be rejected.

We also need to take practical steps to enable parents to play a wider role. All parents should receive regular information bulletins from school, local authority and Scottish Executive. Local authorities should run training courses and workshops dealing with educational issues.

At school level, the office should provide administrative support for the school board and parent-teacher association, dealing with paperwork, providing guidance and ensuring continuity. All authorities should set up consultative committees with parents on the Edinburgh model, that is with a school board chair from each cluster, and each committee should send a representative to a national committee chaired by the education minister and attended by the chief inspector.

National bodies such as the Scottish School Board Association and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council should focus on supporting school boards and PTAs at school level. They could raise the level of debate by issuing briefing documents giving the background to an issue and presenting arguments on both sides, stating the degree of consultation and levels of support.

These suggestions have major implications, like expense. Regular bulletins, a more elaborate process of consultation and administrative support would cost much more. But then, consulting the public over a new road can cost huge amounts. Education should be no different.

The teaching profession has yet to embrace parents as partners. Some parents are rude and aggressive; others are very timid, reluctant to get the reputation of being pushy, and beset by a nagging fear that their child will suffer if they make a fuss.

It would take a long time to build confidence between teacher and parents to a satisfactory level, but it would help if a children's education charter set out their rights and obligations, and made parents guardians of the rights and guarantors of the obligations.

Our centralised system has ensured that no schools get really bad, but it prevents teachers, schools and authorities from responding directly to local conditions. We need to identify minimum guidelines and controls at each level and devolve responsibility for implementation as far down the chain as possible.

If these changes were made, the piles of papers that school boards receive might become an outward manifestation of a real partnership between parents and teachers.

David Hill is a member of two school boards and represents Edinburgh on the SSBA executive

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