Are home-school deals just pie in the sky?

In one school with 500 pupils not a single parent volunteered to join the team drafting the home- school agreement.
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"I must make sure that my child arrives at school every day on time... I must make sure my child does his homework satisfactorily every evening... I must make sure my child behaves appropriately in class... I must make sure I attend all important school meetings about my child."

The trouble is, many parents don't - attend school meetings, that is; and therein lies the first flaw in the latest piece of policy being placed in the Government's educational standards jigsaw. Home-school agreements, a legal requirement for every school from next September, have a bi-partisan basis between parents and schools in order to ensure that parents `own' it, to use the currently-favoured jargon. The principle is simple: if you help to define the rules, you are more likely to stick to them.

This, at least, was the Department for Education and Employment's recommended model for generating the agreement. It was a neat idea. Having abandoned the harsher, and for many entirely inappropriate, notion of a home-school "contract" as it implied something formal to be signed with penalties incurred for non-compliance, the Government opted for both the more user- friendly term "agreement", and a collaborative drafting process. The hope is that this not only reflects more closely the sought after equality and partnership between home and school but also increases compliance and commitment through participation. If parents can't be forced by law to comply, at least their consciences can be pricked after having had a say.

But exactly how many mums and dads have to participate to create that sense of ownership? Around the country, how many actually did turn up, either to a time-consuming drafting meeting or even to any shorter ones rubber-stamping someone else's draft? Having attended a drafting meeting at an infant school in West Sussex, not as a parent, but as a visiting speaker, I would say not nearly enough.

True, the 20 or so parents who attended on a Saturday morning (a 22 per cent turnout) were enthusiastic and thoughtful, for most were already self-selected activists from the school's home-school liaison group, or parent governors. But this seemingly healthy turnout has to be compared with only seven responses to a questionnaire about what might be included in the agreement which had been sent out with the Government's explanatory pamphlet to about 90 families in preparation for that meeting. Two of the responses were hostile: one objected to homework , the other claimed teaching was for teachers, not parents.

At a neighbouring middle school with four times as many children, not a single parent volunteered to join the drafting team. The only parent who eventually turned up at the appointed time was one of the activists from the other school - she had a child at both schools and reluctantly stepped into the breach. So much for participation and commitment. Even supposing a parent turnout better than the 20 or so per cent I saw, how persuaded would any recalcitrant parent with a recalcitrant child be that other parents had helped to frame the policy?

The head of the school I attended was certainly doing her best to do justice to the policy that she supports passionately. She has now spent some 12 hours in meetings with the liaison group and a further six with the children in the school's two student councils: this does not include time with governors or staff. This time commitment points up two further flaws in the policy. If parents are to become committed to compliance through participation, how often does the process have to be repeated in order that new cohorts of parents entering the school in future years feel similarly committed; and how realistic is it to expect schools to devote this amount of time on each occasion?

This last concern was raised at a tetchy county-wide meeting of experienced primary and secondary heads and governors who'd gathered to hear fresh- faced DfEE officials explain the new policy last March. Apart from several references to sucking eggs, and accusations of the "don't you think we've tried that already" kind, there was also disquiet about the imbalance in "partnership". Why was it, they asked, that they were required by law to engage in laborious consultations to produce an agreement when parents either could not be required to sign one as a condition of their child entering the school, or could not be sanctioned in any way if they failed to comply after signing?

What was the point if schools had no way to make it stick? As one school governor said, it would have been more sensible, given the charade of consultation, for the DfEE to circulate schools with, say, six sample agreements and allow each school to select the one most appropriate to itself, then they could quickly revert their attention to the deluge of learning grids, literacy hours and everything else the Government currently expects of them. They predicted home-school agreements would soon go the way of so many other "ground-breaking" initiatives they had wasted their time on.

If the new home-school agreements were intended to mark a change in the Government's tone away from naming and shaming schools and parents towards challenge, support and understanding, then some at that conference felt it had failed here too. "The flavour is still stick, not carrot", as one primary head said. "Whatever ministers say, this whole initiative is really aimed at the 10 per cent of parents who impede their children and our work, yet the clear focus on behaviour, homework and attendance belies the window dressing.

"All parents are being tarred with the same brush. Parents could still feel hectored, and many schools still feel put upon." Of course parents' role in children's education can be critical: but, while education ministers might feel these agreements are, if not a vital corner piece, then at least a framing edge piece of their standards jigsaw, it looks as if schools see it as one of those interminable bits of sky that take for ever to place and add nothing to the picture.