Education / Back to School: Classroom doors flung open - for some: But are parents as welcome beyond the playground gates as they deserve to be? Judith Judd investigates

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The Independent Online
It's easy to visit Bramcote Hills School. The welcome signs by the door are in half a dozen languages and there is no school office with an intimidating grille, just a desk where secretaries work and welcome visitors. Parents are everywhere. One is teaching a group how to sew and another helping with art. The display in the entrance is of the storybook character Moomintroll, but down the corridor nine and 10-year-olds are putting the finishing touches to the collage of a giant tree that is about to replace it.

The welcome at Bramcote, in a Nottingham suburb, was not always so warm. Eleven years ago, Denise Bailey remembers leaving her five-year-old son Jonathan at the door of his classroom for his first day at school. 'I wasn't shown round the school as a new parent. Not very long afterwards, it was made clear to us that we shouldn't come up to the school to collect him but should wait at the bottom of the drive.'

For Jonathan's sister, Beth, aged nine, the experience of starting school was very different. 'Jonathan had one visit before he started. Now four-year-olds starting school will probably have been here half a dozen times. In the reception class you can bring them into the classroom and help them change their reading book.'

Sandra Hooton, mother of 10-year-old Matthew, was particularly grateful to be able to come in to settle him in. 'He has eczema and some of the children were unkind to him at first. I had a word with the teacher and it was sorted out. He also used to worry each day about who was going to go out into the playground with him and I was able to sort that out.'

Professor Ted Wragg, director of the School of Education at Exeter University, says the change in most schools' attitudes since the late Sixties, when he first became involved in research into the relationship between home and school, has been dramatic. He recalls a notice on one school gate which read: 'Trespassers will be prosecuted. Parents are not allowed beyond this point.' A letter from another head at the time asked parents to bring new children to school clean and well dressed and commented: 'I will do the rest.' Schools' fears, he says, stemmed from worries that teachers would be assaulted or, in some cases, that parents would see they could not keep order.

By contrast, parents of four-year-olds starting school at Bramcote Hills this week will already be familiar with the school's teachers and classrooms. Since 1989 at least two preparatory sessions have been arranged for all new four-year-olds, staffed originally by teachers and now by parents. Children are also invited to come to storytime along with their parents before they start school, and to sample an assembly. Invitations for the storytime visit are written by the school's older children, who each take responsibility for the children they invite once they arrive at school.

All parents receive a booklet before their child starts school with advice on suitable preparation. They are advised to discuss the meanings of words such as maths, PE and assembly which children may not have heard before, to show them how to hold a pencil and to talk about the time of day. I-Spy and games of beginning sounds such as 'c' for car on the walk to school are suggested to help with reading.

Pat Partington, the school's headteacher, emphasised the importance of the relationship between home and school by appointing Carole Heath co-ordinator for home, school and community liaison. Mrs Heath says: 'Parents are the most importance educators. It would be awful if the school completely took over. A lot of ideas for how to improve the relationship between school and home have come from parents.

'Teachers need to know about the little things that worry children, whether it is bullying, falling out with their friend or their take-aways in maths. What is trivial to an adult is the end of the world to a child and may make the difference between doing a day's work or being a bag of nerves.'

The need for partnership continues throughout pupils' school careers. All parents receive a timetable of the work their children will be covering at the beginning of each school year. For those entering the juniors there is a second reading leaflet for parents explaining, for example, that 11-year-olds may still enjoy being read to, that visiting the library is important and that children should see adults read. Another booklet suggests how parents can help children at home with the national curriculum, from forming letters correctly to explaining what a thunderstorm shows about light and sound.

There are numerous opportunities to visit school. At the beginning of each year parents are invited to meet their child's teachers, who give a short talk and then chat informally.

Mrs Heath says: 'Teachers were nervous at first. They are used to dealing with children, not with groups of parents; but now they enjoy it.'

A family evening last year offered a chance to see animals from a nearby farm, to join the public library, ideas for hobbies and educational acitivities at home and a selection of places for education visits. There is an annual grandparents' day.

The partnership with parents is under constant review. A recent questionnaire revealed that parents wanted children to be given more homework and for open days to be at the beginning rather than the end of the school year. Staff are deciding which tasks can be done better at home rather than schools.

Is Bramcote Hills unusual? Three years ago, research by Sandra Jowett, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, suggested that while more schools were paying lip-serivce to parental involvement, in practice many schools were unwelcoming.

The study quoted examples of a parent who was criticised for bringing a note into school without an envelope and of parents trying to find their way to a parent teacher consultations through an unlit, unsigned school.

Clearly, there are still big differences in the way schools treat parents. Professor Wragg points out that, in spite of the changes, it is still legal for heads to refuse to allow the formation of a parents' association.

Michael Barber, professor of education at Keele University, said some schools did not realise the importance of parental involvement. 'There is also a lot of anxiety among teachers about dealing with other adults. They don't have the confidence to explain things.'

Margaret Morrissey, press officer for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, believes there has been an improvement in the past two years.

The new inspection arrangements which insist that inspectors look at schools' relationships with parents in their four-yearly inspections are the spur, she says.

'It brings schools up with a start. I don't think it is because they were consciously not putting an effort into it, just that there has been so much happening that they have not thought about it.

'Groups which have been active in fund-raising are now having more educational meetings. People want to know about A-level exams and science rather than about how to run a donkey derby.'

(Photograph omitted)

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