Education: Where mum and dad go to school, too: Sarah Strickland reports on a venture in which parental involvement sometimes means a return to the classroom

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The Independent Online
IT IS lunchtime, and 12 children are sitting around the kitchen table while 'mum' doles out pasta. Other children run in and out. A man in muddy boots wanders in, chats to some children for a while and wanders out again. They call him Rod. Could he be the father of this sizeable brood?

Not father, it turns out, but teacher. The woman stirring the pot claims only one of the children as her own. This is Park School, at Dartington, near Totnes, Devon - a 70-pupil school for younger children which expects parents to muck in.

They must devote three hours of their time every week to the school. Parents who cannot, pay an extra pounds 10 a week on top of fees to make up the difference. The three hours can be divided up during the week, or used in a block at the end of every month or term.

Parents are encouraged to use any talents they have, or help in any way they can: from cleaning, cooking, painting and decorating, to teaching in class or doing administrative work at home.

The school, on part of the old Dartington Hall School site, works informally: children call parents and teachers by their first names.

There is no headteacher; instead, the school is run by a 'council of managers'. Lynette Gribble, its chairwoman, is a co- founder of the school, who believes parental participation can bring great benefits.

'The parents all have different talents, and you wish children to be exposed to their enthusiasm,' she said.

But, as one parent pointed out, there can be disadvantages. 'When the child leaves, so does the parent and their input,' she said. 'Unless the school has teachers that cover the subject, that is the end of it.' French lessons stopped when the parent who had taught the subject left.

The school recognises that such things can happen: the prospectus says that 'opportunities will change as different people are involved in the school'. It sees such changes as part of a natural ebb and flow of talent, supplementing the five full-time teachers.

Kay Dunbar, teacher-in- charge, and a lecturer on education at the University of Exeter, said children at Park School could have a taste of something like French which they might not get at other primary schools.

Parental participation was 'a wonderful experience' for both parents and pupils, she said. Many parents had gained enormous confidence and gone on to do courses and things they would not have dreamt of doing before.

'Sometimes I feel we are running a school as much for parents as for children,' said Ms Dunbar. 'What we are offering is family education. Like therapy, if the child needs it, then the whole family needs it.'

One parent, Harriet Smart, helps with her five-year-old daughter Courtney's class every Tuesday afternoon. At first she had doubts about participating: 'I was inclined to back away from it, was scared to death of the commitment, and worried about whether I would be able to fulfil the role. But the teachers are so appreciative, I've found I love it, and want to be more involved.'

Park School children, she said, 'learn how to be themselves with adults'. Did she lavish more attention on her own daughter during classes? 'I have to try to be less involved with her because they expect you to be. I think you give more to the other children to compensate. I'm more inclined to make a fuss of the other children and then explain to Courtney when we get home.'

June Richardson, Courtney's teacher, said that having parents in the classroom took a lot of organisation. 'It's no good them just wandering in and not having a positive role to fill,' she said. 'I like them to come in early so we can go through what their contribution will be.' One parent enjoyed it so much she was spending a whole day a week at the school, rather than just three hours.

Parental participation, it seems, can be an added burden. Ms Dunbar said: 'Parents can put a lot of pressure on teachers. You have to be very confident, and not mind being open to that kind of scrutiny. You have to be strong, able to defend what you think is right, and flexible enough to take on board others' opinions. It's a tall order to make on teachers, and very time-consuming.'

Clive Fairweather, who teaches nine- and 10-year-olds, agreed. 'It's a goldfish-bowl existence. You have to be tremendously aware of everything you are going to say or do. It's very tiring.

'There are times when you feel you have got two sorts of children in the class - including a bunch you have not been trained to deal with.

'When you have to find a task for the kids, you have to give the parents something to do, too. But professionally it's good, because it keeps you on your toes.'

(Photographs omitted)