Education: Less chalk and more talk: A pilot project is developing closer links between schools and parents, says Tim Kahn

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The Independent Online
When a group of teachers were asked to imagine that they were parents at their children's school, attending a discussion on the limits of discipline, the following comments were made:

'It's much easier to be a teacher than a mother. As a mother you don't have the authority you have at school.'

'You are trained to be a teacher, but not a parent.'

'Discipline is more difficult at home, because you are emotionally involved.'

The teachers, from 16 schools in Hertfordshire and the London Borough of Barnet, were taking part in a pilot project called 'Effective Parenting', which aims to train teachers to work with parents.

After eight training sessions, they will set up groups in their own schools to give parents the chance to meet, talk through and reflect on everyday issues such as discipline, punishment, sibling rivalry and starting school.

The project is being funded by the two boroughs and the Nuffield Foundation, a charity interested in educational and family issues. Robert Wilson, head of Hertfordshire Education Services, says: 'We believe that this programme could be an important step forward in building a more active home-school partnership. Supporting parents in their role will encourage trust, which can only serve to benefit the education of our children.'

Larraine Hills, one of the designers of the programme, spent 17 years in Australia helping teachers to work with parents. Although this idea is fairly new in Britain, such training is common in Australia, she says, and a component of every teacher training course. 'Nowadays, in Australia, teachers in most schools visit parents in their homes two or three times a year, and in many schools they arrange discussion groups for parents. This approach gives parents invaluable support.'

Ms Hills was about to introduce a similar programme in the Barnet primary school where she was teaching, when she was joined by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, a social policy specialist and parent of a child at the school. Together they designed the programme of eight topics, and in September 1992 held the first sessions, which proved so popular with parents that many had to be run twice. Sessions are fully booked again this academic year.

Danielle Black, who attended a number of sessions, is enthusiastic: 'My eldest son was having difficulty settling when he started school. It was only during the 'Starting School' session that I realised the obvious: that David was concerned about being displaced by our new baby. I resolved to spend more time with him, and that helped him to feel more secure.'

The discussions gave her a greater understanding of school approaches to discipline, she says. 'And the school has responded to issues that parents in the group have raised, which has increased the flow of information between school and home.'

Interest from Hertfordshire and Barnet education authorities led Ms Hartley-Brewer to launch the teacher-training pilot scheme. They are now halfway through the programme, and in the summer term will set up the first discussion groups in their schools.

Gale, a teacher taking part, says: 'Parents feel frightened of coming into the school where I teach: most of them left school at 16 and have bad memories of it. I think these 'coffee and chat sessions' will help them to overcome these barriers.'

Julie, another teacher, says: 'Many parents are desperate for help and many teachers desperately want more communication with parents. These sessions may enable both to happen.'

Gillian Pugh, director of the Early Childhood Unit of the National Children's Bureau and one of the country's leading experts on parent education, will complete her short-term evaluation of the project in the summer. 'This is a particularly interesting scheme because it is attempting to build a partnership between home and school and to support parents in handling some of the challenges of parenthood more confidently,' she says.

(Photograph omitted)