Put Mum and Dad in the picture

It takes more than a contract to get parents involved at school. Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer explains how one school has done it
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What a difference a decade makes. Schools now accept that parents matter. Not so long ago, parents were told to keep off the teachers' professional turf. The flavour of 1996 is home-school contracts, and they are getting top marks; but does anyone seriously think they will reach parts others policies have not?

Let's be honest. These contracts are not aimed at parents who already monitor homework, attend school events, who support education and whose children behave. They are designed to ensnare the disinterested and "negligent" who rarely appear except, perhaps, to defend volubly their errant child. These parents may not be exercising due care and responsibility. But if it is accepted that parental hostility to school undermines a child's commitment to teachers and study, how can the imposition of contracts change the character of a poor home-school relationship - especially if they are backed by threats and sanctions? To call it a partnership is a mockery, even if the school pledges to deliver something in return. Without more subtle work with "hard to access" parents, contracts won't benefit the child.

What about parents' responsibility for children's behaviour? Can contracts make a difference? Not at the sharp end. Parents whose children cause serious problems at school often have long since abdicated their authority to the child, or are beset with complex problems. To exhort them to be responsible and take control is empty rhetoric. They won't know how. Where parent-child relationship problems are entrenched, schools need to empower and support, not exhort.

But it's not just with the uninvolved parents that contracts could backfire. Knowing that qualifications are increasingly important, contracts could be the green light for fearful and ambitious parents to pile on the pressure - and the nagging. Many are revving up, ready and waiting. The boundary between interest and inquisition is not always clear. Parents may easily over-supervise, demand to see work and focus on mistakes. Criticism and control fuel resentment and conflict, and both undermine motivation. How many schools will underpin contracts with realistic guidance on good ways to motivate?

There is another approach. After three years of increasingly abysmal GCSE results, the Sir John Newsom School in Hertfordshire initiated a radical dialogue with parents to involve them directly in the emergency improvement programme. With local authority backing, the then acting head wanted to demonstrate respect for parents' views and difficulties, and give them confidence in their capacity to support learning, qualifications or no. She wanted to change the balance of power: to ask, listen and learn, but she wasn't sure how. I was asked to help, and the results have been exciting.

Two new-style parents' evenings took place last term, targeting the parents of children who had just started secondary school and those about to shepherd their children through GCSE. Instead of sitting in rows to receive a pep talk, parents sat at small tables in groups and brainstormed on their given tasks, writing their thoughts on large sheets of paper that were later displayed. After each task, they fed back to each other - both their problems and the shared solutions - with the staff listening. Each time, the staff present sat well away, busy with their own tasks so as not to intimidate them. On each occasion, parents also completed a short questionnaire.

After each evening, the views expressed were summarised and posted (along with planned outcomes, questionnaire results and guidance notes on settling in and helping with homework) toattendees and absent parents - for, of course, a significant number had failed to show up.

Parents who came were astonished. They got a lot off their chest - there was too much classroom disruption, homework too easy or too bunched. They wanted to hear good news, not just about problems, to get regular feedback, tips on time-management and to hear less jargon. And they wanted more evenings like these.

The staff were shell-shocked, too. "It's hard not to feel defensive," one said, "but we've got to listen." "It's been an eye-opener," said another. "We thought we were communicating but we weren't."

The school's new head, Tom Carmichael, is keen to embed the experience in a new school culture. Reaching the inactive parents is a problem, but he's hopeful. The first-years' evening spawned a parents' working party that has already invited students to present work to their families, to foster interest and understanding. The letter to parents will come from the group. And his view of contracts? "The principle behind them is laudable, but I'm uneasy about forcing parents to do anything. Many are just timid. They need to feel they have a voice and can air their views constructively - and be heard."

Two-way communication and mutual respect - this is partnership.

The writer is a consultant on education and parenting.