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Treasure the parents

The need to recognise the power of the home and the community as contexts for learning is inescapable, says Jeannie Mackenzie.

As I made my way home," says Scout in the final chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, "I thought Jem and I would go back to school and get grown, but there wasn't much else for us to learn, except possibly algebra." To Kill a Mockingbird was written in 1960, but is still contemporary in exposing how schooling tends to isolate itself from other learning contexts. Scout had an insatiable appetite for learning, but her home and her community are also her classroom.

Schools in the 1960s continued to teach the mysteries of flat ironing although the electric iron was invented in 1882 and was in almost universal use by 1960. Similarly, in school education today we are still pursuing the improvement agenda of the 1980s, which overemphasised in-school factors, as Professor Walter Humes told the recent secondary heads conference (TESS, November 20, 2003).

The same conference also heard from Professor John West-Burnham, of the National College for School Leadership, how the rate of school improvement has levelled off. He likened it to pushing a car up a hill. I envision the hard-pressed teacher, toiling despondently behind the car, desperately trying to reach a moving target, sometimes only just managing to stop the car rolling back, but strangely reluctant to invite others to push along with her.

I am not suggesting we deny all that we have learned from the school effectiveness movement. There is no doubt about the vast strides we have made in improving classroom practice and in managing for improvement. In refusing to lower our expectations of what children living in poverty can achieve, we have set laudable targets for change.

There have also been remarkable achievements but, like the classic school report, I acknowledge we have done well and suggest that we could do so much better. What holds us back is the failure to recognise the strength of learning at home and in the community. We tend to corral parents into manageable groups to sanction school policy, raise funds, attend curriculum workshops, mix paint, put on aprons and make sure the children have done their homework.

In failing to affirm parents as educators, we tend to disempower, disengage and disaffect. We have valued parent involvement in schools over parent involvement in learning. Yet the evidence of the effectiveness of the second is unequivocal - it is the single most significant factor in positive educational outcomes.

In Scottish education, we have an enviable record in promoting family learning among the most disadvantaged communities, much of it derived from Doreen Grant's seminal work in 1970s Govan with her "stairheed seminars".

However, most of the good practice that has evolved since, like Grant's, has suffered from short-termism and shortsightedness. The power of the home and the community as contexts for learning is inescapable, however.

It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that the Education Minister intends to "reinvigorate the parental agenda" in 2004. How? I'd like to make a few suggestions.

* Let's call it family learning or community learning, not "home-link", "home-school" or any other term which implies that the school has the hierarchy over the home.

* Let's dispel the myth of the uninterested parent. There are no parents uninterested in their child's education, but there many who are disengaged from their child's schooling.

* Let's make the engagement of parents central to what we do, not something we will get round to when we have time or resources.

* Let's take a hard, long look at our purpose and practice in setting homework and reporting to parents and ask ourselves what, if anything, these practices do to empower parents.

* Let's use personal learning plans to strengthen the teacher- parent-child triad.

* Let's recognise that the education establishment is part of the solution but also part of the problem - in mystifying and over-professionalising what we do, we disempower and distance parents.

* Let's value the work of those who strive to engage with disaffected parents and communities. Let's recognise that such work is skilled, labour intensive and long term. Let's mainstream it and make it no longer dependent on temporary funding.

* Finally, let us not make unreasonable demands on those who promote family and community learning to justify the existence of their field. When did we ever seriously challenge the benefits of teaching algebra?

Jeannie Mackenzie is a quality development officer in East Renfrewshire .

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