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Podium: A new partnership for our children

Melian Mansfield

From a speech by

a member of the Campaign for State Education to the

`Seeds of Change' forum in London

CREATIVE partnerships encourage, enable and empower. They do not impose or constrain. Ideas can flow: everything is possible. Parents and those who work with children recognise their complementary roles and support each other; they each bring their expertise. No one is blamed. All children benefit. But in how many schools is it like this?

The 1998 School Standards and Framework Act requires all schools to have a home-school agreement from September 1999. This is a real opportunity for governing bodies to review the relationship between parents and teachers in their school, to find out from all parties, including the young people, what works well and to plan improvements.

Does the school have a home-school policy which has been thoroughly discussed by everyone and a parents' association or, better still, a parents' council with representatives from every class? How do governors, parents and teachers communicate? Do they treat each other as friends? They have a common aim - the success of every child - and working together is how they can best achieve it.

The Warnock Report in 1978 stated that "the successful education of children with special educational needs is dependent on the full involvement of their parents". The 1981 Education Act gave parents the right to be involved and informed when their child is being assessed and when a statement is being written. This has been further emphasised in the Code of Practice (1993) to which all schools have to have regard.

The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the UK in December 1991, states that "the best interest of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for his education and guidance. That responsibility lies in the first instance with his parents".

If parents are to fulfil this responsibility it is important that they are consulted on all matters concerning their children's education, are involved in determining policies, are provided with as much information as possible.

Children too have a right to express their views and to be heard, as the convention states in Article 12. Their views and those of their parents should not be seen as a threat but as a form of evaluation about the way the school is working.

Most government policies in recent years have failed to take account of the changes in society which affect young people and their parents; a curriculum and education system that may have worked in previous decades will not work in the new age. The Government has often put a strait-jacket on schools which enables little innovation and development. The most positive change has been the requirement on schools to have a development plan - although this is not enshrined in law, it is a useful tool for schools to use.

Parents are their children's first educators; they know them best and spend more time with them than any other adult. Parents' and teachers' views of the same child may be very different. The fact that parents may not show that they care in ways professionals might expect does not detract from the truth corroborated time and again by research - all parents care and want their children to do well and to help them, particularly those who had difficulties at school.

Schools, teachers and all those concerned with the education of children should be involving parents from the very beginning. Many parents lose confidence through the process of having children and when they find that what their children are learning and doing is so very different from what they did. Often they missed out on certain areas of their education because they were not interested at the time. In addition, the speed of change is increasing rapidly and adults often find themselves less competent than children especially in areas such as information technology.

So how do we achieve a creative partnership? First we need to establish the principles on which the partnership is to be based. These are the same as for any successful relationship. They include trust, openness, encouragement, sharing, mutual respect, understanding, empathy, concern. They must come from discussions with all concerned. Once agreed we can look at ways of putting them into practice. This can start with a review of what we are already doing, surveys of staff and parents, group discussions, and conversations with children.

There must be no feeling of "them" and "us". Everyone - adults and children - need to enjoy being together. The result will be improved self esteem, greater confidence, a real sense of belonging and more children achieving successfully.