Victory is all about alliances

13th May 2005 at 01:00
CHILDREN, FAMILIES AND SCHOOLS: developing partnerships for inclusive education. By Sally Beveridge. RoutledgeFalmer pound;21.99

Parental involvement improves children's academic results. Kenny Frederick commends a book that helps schools analyse how they go about building links with parents

One of the biggest challenges of being a headteacher is how to engage parents and carers in their children's education. At my school we do all the usual things (and more), and after our recent Ofsted inspection we were told that this was something we were very good at. Don't tell Ofsted, but I disagree, because we believe that for the majority of our parents, the partnership is superficial.

However, our relationships with parents of children with special needs are excellent. These parents have had to fight hard to get their children's needs met, and as a result they are very active in all aspects of school life. Our task now is to get the rest of our parents engaged in learning. I hoped that this book would give me some insight into improving this essential partnership.

Its clear message is that if a child is to be fully included in the life of a school, parents should also be fully involved as equal partners in the learning community. There is evidence that children's academic performance improves when their parents and teachers work collaboratively. In other words, parent participation leads to higher attainment and achievement.

Which is why schools try so hard to get it right. Successful inclusion initiatives develop creative ways of making parents an integral part of the school.

The author tells us that effective communication between the home and school is crucial for any child's education, but where special educational needs are concerned, strong partnerships are essential. While it could be said that this is obvious, there is no doubt it is a point that bears repetition for all those who provide services for children.

Although this book is concerned with relations between home and school from a general inclusion perspective, much of it is directed towards pupils with special needs. In chapter two the author refers to a document published by the Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education in 2000 to promote greater inclusiveness by involving schools in self-review and development planning.

My own school piloted these very valuable materials, which helped us come to a better understanding of inclusion.

The book is divided into seven chapters, all clearly written and accessible. While it provides a clear record of political directives and research findings, it does not go as far as providing ideas for those trying to develop strategies for change. However, it could be useful in helping practitioners to audit and analyse the service they provide.

In the chapter on "Home and family", the author explores the present-day context of family life, reflecting wider social trends. Changing ideas about marriage and divorce, gender roles, working mothers, child rearing and childcare have led to significant changes in family structures. Many children experience a degree of family change and instability at some point in their childhood. While most children in the UK live with parents, a growing minority live with a lone parent or in a reconstituted family.

However, what is most significant for children's development is the quality of the care they receive rather than the family structure.

The following chapter contains a clear and depressing chart outlining the risk factors associated with child poverty. Children affected by poverty are not necessarily covered by special educational needs provision. Risk factors are not only associated with home and local community, but also with school. We know that many children appear able to cope with a single source of stress in their lives and that the support of one or more positive relationships can bolster their resilience. However, the more risks they face, the more likely it is that they will encounter significant difficulties. Also, when children's experiences of school have been negative, they may find it difficult to communicate with their own children's teachers when they become parents. This leads to a continuing cycle of educational disadvantage, which the author is confident can be broken by developing links between home and school.

She suggests a community-based model for supporting families; a similar strategy is proving very successful in my own school. As the book says, schools need to work out how to be more accessible and responsive to the people they serve; this involves a commitment to community development and empowerment. The school is viewed as an inclusive learning facility, which offers both children and their families the opportunity to develop relevant skills and knowledge. This is sound advice and seems key to planning a way forward.

While the book focuses on parent-teacher relationships, these cannot be seen in isolation from wider professional networks within and beyond school. For pupils with particular needs, support staff in schools fulfil a range of functions that can include home-school liaison. I did expect the author to make reference to the workforce reforms that have led to the greater involvement of such people in schools. At George Green, it is largely support staff who provide wrap-around services for our most needy children.

I would recommend this book to colleagues who are trying to improve and make sense of parent partnerships. Instead of blaming parents when the partnership is not going well, Sally Beveridge makes us reflect honestly on our own practice: a painful exercise, but a necessary one.

Kenny Frederick is headteacher of George Green community school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets

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