Grown-ups go back to school

The Government wants more parental involvement, but in Haringey they've got more than they bargained for: one primary has enrolled adults in lessons - and everyone is benefiting. Hilary Wilce reports
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The Independent Online

The Government knows this, and wants parents on board. Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education and herself a mother of four, has called for more parental involvement in schools, and Government pledges include extending the services offered to families by schools, and giving parents the power to trigger an Ofsted inspection if they are unhappy with their child's school.

But parent power is far from straightforward. Some schools have struggled for years to get parents more interested in their pupils' education, but have found many of them too busy, intimidated, or indifferent, while for certain teachers the only good parent is the one they never see. David Hart, the outgoing general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has warned that giving more power to parents who lack responsibility for what goes on in schools is like "putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar ", and even the champions of parent power acknowledge that building meaningful home-school partnerships is an uphill battle.

Fiona Carnie, a consultant for the charity Human Scale Education, says that despite home-school contracts and increased numbers of parents on governing bodies, most parents still feel they have little say over what goes on in classrooms and are only wanted by schools as fundraisers. They can't influence the curriculum or make their voices heard about testing, school meals, uniforms, behaviour policies or school trips. Parent-teacher consultations are woefully inadequate, she says, and parent governors tend to represent their own views on a governing body, rather than those of parents as a whole.

Yet in other countries partnerships work better. In Denmark, for example, schools hold termly class meetings so parents can meet each other and their children's teacher. "This kind of meeting quickly builds up better relationships between families and teachers. It is less threatening for parents to discuss things in a group, and allows teachers to know their children better," Carnie says.

Human Scale Education is working with four schools in disadvantaged areas to explore new ways of drawing parents into schools. It anticipated that setting up parents' councils would be the way forward, but has discovered that when parents truly have their say things can go off in a different direction.

At Bruce Grove Primary School in Haringey, north London, where more than 40 languages are spoken and a third of its pupils move on every year, a parent council has been set up but it proved difficult to get parents involved. "They didn't feel they could come in to school," says the school's new head, Geraldine Waterman. But when parents were cajoled along to meetings, it became clear that, if many were uninterested in the formality of a parents' council, they did want other things - help with literacy and numeracy, with knowing how to help with their own children's learning, and with parenting issues such as managing behaviour and setting boundaries.

Now the school has a freshly painted and equipped parents' room with crêche facilities, where regular classes are held, mostly run by outside tutors. Initially these were timetabled for after lunch, but morning sessions, directly after school drop-off, have proved more successful. The school runs English classes, and has found that classes in cookery and sewing, which allow parents to chat as they work, are more appealing than dedicated parenting classes.

The classes were only started this year, but already the school is seeing more parents - including some fathers - joining school trips and being willing to come into school for various reasons. "What we've done has evolved," says Waterman. "The parents' council, as such, hasn't met for ages. We started with one idea and ended up with another. But if you give skills to parents there is a knock-on effect, and you can make much greater strides with parental involvement than without it - even if it is just a question of a parent sitting down for five minutes with their children's reading book."

The school has been able to explain how synthetic phonics is taught to children, and to clarify other things. One parent was angry about her child being given free fruit at school until the health issues were explained, for example. "It also stops parents from doing that bitching in the playground," says Gerry Morson, the project's coordinator, who has been helping the school involve parents. "And the children are very proud. They'll run up to you and say: 'My Mum comes to your group.'"

"It's all about ownership," says Sharon Green, a member of the parents' council. "If parents feel part of the school, they get much more involved, and the classes have been a great success. Parents like being back at school. They come in with their folders."

Other schools in the project are pursuing different avenues. Beech Hill Primary School in Luton has surveyed parents and plans a system of class representatives. It has also organised tea parties for teachers, parents and teaching assistants. "It made a lot of difference. Parents didn't want to go home at the end," says Carnie. In Bolton, Ladybridge High School is planning a parents' forum, using learning co-ordinators to reach out to families, and offering every parent of a Year Seven child the chance to spend a day in school with their child. George Green's School, meanwhile, on the Isle of Dogs in London, is setting up a forum for the parents of African and Caribbean boys as well as a general parents' forum, and also plans new ways of supporting parents of pupils with special needs.

Each school was given £5,000 by the Department for Education and Skills to make changes, although Carnie says that building home-school bridges is a long-term endeavour and funding must be extended. "Ruth Kelly has talked up parent power, but I don't think people have picked up how hard it is, or the scope of the changes needed."

"It takes a lot of people's time," Waterman warns, "and you have to have money. It can't be done without proper funding."

The Government says it is already working with parents on many fronts, including providing them with information, encouraging fathers to get involved, and working to join-up children's services. But Human Scale Education says that there is a long way to go to build truly effective partnerships.

"If parents have more say, they have much more of a stake in what goes on," points out Carnie. "If we are serious about raising standards, we have got to find a way for parents to join in more."

Have your say: what mums and dads can achieve

Parent involvement is flourishing at Dartington Church of England Primary School, at Shinners Bridge in south Devon, where a bold experiment in partnership has been helped by the laid-back, 1960s nature of the area. "There are a lot of educational alternatives round here, so many of our parents are here by choice," says Bea Gill, a Year One teacher and literacy co-ordinator. "This means that when one or two keen parents get stuck in, they can take people with them."

A parents' council was set up two years ago with first one, then two, parents randomly chosen from each class, and the backing of the head, Annie Tempest. "She has always been involved and has steered parents away from negative views towards being more proactive," says Gill.

The council was intended to provide a focus for parents whose children go to a large, sprawling, split site, and to offer a mechanism for them to have their say on major issues to do with plans for a new school, as well as on daily issues.

"It's an opportunity for open dialogue and it gives people something else to talk about besides their own children," says Gill. "At the moment, parents are looking again at our school catering. There are lots of producers round here, so we have a sub-group researching that."

The council meets twice a term after school, with tea and biscuits and a crêche, and allows small issues to be quickly and amicably resolved. It has looked at questions of parking, site safety and school transport, and pressed for more exercise in school and water being made available in classes. Decisions are communicated by newsletters.

"The informality is important," says parent Caroline Murphy, an early years' lecturer, who helped set it up, "and we have learnt so much about the school and how it works because of it." However, the involvement of the head is vital, she says, as is having one or two parents willing to administer it and keep up the momentum. "But I feel as a parent that that sense of losing touch with your child's education is something that has got to be bridged. Parents need to go hand-in-hand with the school on education."