Parents' evenings plan for WH Smith

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The Independent Online

School parents' evenings could soon be held in high street shops under controversial plans being considered by the Government.

School parents' evenings could soon be held in high street shops under controversial plans being considered by the Government.

The Department for Education and Employment has become so concerned about poor attendance at parents' evenings in some parts of the country that it has started discussions with WH Smith about holding the events in the stationery chain's shops.

The sessions would be held after normal shopping hours in spare rooms or in hired meeting rooms in shopping centres. Smith's would keep tills open to sell goods to parents when they came to drop off and collect their children though it claims this is not its main aim.

An education departmentspokesman said: "The initiative is being driven by WH Smith. They came to us but we are supportive of it. Some parents feel reluctant to go to schools for parents' evenings and clearly this is a way of trying to engage with parents on educational issues outside the school environment.

"We are still in discussions and nothing has been decided. But it is an interesting idea."

The move was immediately criticised by unions. Eamon O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "If you go down this road you might as well hold them in the pub. Schools go out of their way to make themselves welcoming and approachable. The whole idea that parents will somehow be seduced by the idea of sitting in a branch of WH Smith is complete nonsense. The idea should be consigned to the bin as soon as possible."

But the Government says some parents do find school environments forbidding. Some schools have found that attendance can also be affected by other factors such as key episodes of television programmes like Eastenders.

However, parent groups were sceptical about the idea saying it was useful for mothers and fathers to see the environment in which their children were being taught. They also added that transporting teachers' notes and other aids to and from schools might be a problem. The National Council of Parents Teachers' Associations said: "As long as it is not a way of privatising state education, it's fine. It has to be good for the children, not just for business."

The initiative is just one of a series of measures the Government is discussing with the private sector. WH Smith is also talking to the education department about paying teachers to come to its stores on Saturdays to give parents advice on school syllabuses and which books to buy. This too was criticised by unions who said their members were already overloaded with work.

Next month, Smith's will start offering maths classes to children at four of its stores in the Manchester area. The classes will take place after school hours and be run by shop workers. The company said a professional teacher was not necessary as the classes are based on a game to improve arithmetic skills.

The scheme is part of Maths Year 2000 which starts in January.

A spokesman for WH Smith said the company was not trying to commercialise education but broaden its appeal. "Who says education can only take place in the classroom?"

Smith's pointed to the example of Leeds United football club which is currently holding maths classes for under-perfoming pupils.

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