Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Schools, Parents and the Community

The vexed question of the relationships of schools with parents and other local people.

Schools that are complacent about their relationships with parents say one of two things (sometimes both).

They say that parents (those that don't turn up to parent/teacher evenings, or the annual general meeting) are apathetic, they don't think that their children's education is important.

Or they say that parents don't feel the need to come, because they are happy with everything the school does.

Any governing body that accepts these views is doing its parent body - even if only a small part of it - a grave injustice.

Parents have not always been welcomed into the world of schools. This is strange because they, surely, are the clients, consumers, customers, as well as being the first teachers.

There have been notorious cases when the active involvement of parents has brought down official condemnation. Some schools are still very unwelcoming to all outsiders, as some parents have seen. Many junior and primary schools, while peddling the rhetoric in their literature, make no provision for parents to drop off and collect their children in a civilized manner, meet only the basic statutory requirements in reporting children's progress, and make principals and senior staff as inaccessible as they can.

Secondary schools are even more skilled at this game: their buildings are forbidding mazes; sometimes you can't even find the number in the phone book, let alone get on to the premises; and parents' evenings are an ordeal, with visitors marshalled from one teacher to another at regular intervals. Parents feel like intruders in many schools anyway, and some schools are happy that this should be the case.

The lack of parental involvement in their children's education has been consistently deplored by officialdom. The language of these tracts, however, suggests that close liaison between home and school is only to be encouraged if it is on the school's terms, and as a means of educating the parents in the aims of the school.

Where parents are to be enlisted, their support will be on the schools' terms: No doubt here as to who are to be the main beneficiaries of home-school liaison.

Teachers - and now governing councillors - can point to all sorts of legislation, regulations and administrative guidelines that legitimise their activities, but parents have little statutory backing, except in terms of receiving information.

A UK report in the early ‘60s, which dealt with students in secondary schools, spoke of the need for the school to be joined to its community by 'a causeway well trodden in both directions'. Most of the time, the school and the community will be separated by an unassailable sea - except for twice each day, when the tide recedes, and parents and teachers may tread carefully across the intervening sands.

Other local documents (in SA) over the years have been praised for their recommendations on the constructive involvement of parents in their children's education, even in the classroom itself. Even so, there seeps through certain pragmatism: Schools can exercise their influence not only directly upon children but also indirectly through their relationship with parents.

So schools can educate parents as well as children. One report has stated that: 'It is extremely important that parents know what the teachers want them to know about education'. In a section entitled 'What's in it for the teacher?’ the answer is: 'A lot of extra work... as time passes parents will clearly recognise the vast amount of hard work which a teacher has to put in to a normal day. Experience has shown that parents will not be long in voicing their appreciation and admiration.' (Watson, L. & Johnson, D. 1979, Home, School and Community: Report of a Workshop, Sheffield City Polytechnic Department of Educational Management.)

Meanwhile, the parent will be rewarded with 'an awareness that they are forming a genuine relationship with their child's teacher'. (Ibid, p.29). In order to reassure teachers that parents will retain a sufficiently deferential attitude, we are told that 'Parents will usually rely on the professional expertise of the teachers. . It is when talking with teachers that most parents will make decisions about what might be the best course of action to take when dealing with the interests or problems of their own child' (Watson & Johnson, Op Cit., p.35).

As you might expect, the one area where parents are allowed, encouraged, even cajoled to participate in the life of the school is in raising money: 'Experience has shown that parents may enjoy the challenge of organizing fund-raising activities. The teachers should clearly make efforts to show interest in what is going on, and quite probably the school will be used to hold some of these events: in which case, staff may wish to come along on the evening and take part in some small way. The teachers' role in any of the fund-raising activities should be basically supportive, as this is one area where the parents can make a very real contribution and quite often are far better equipped to cope. It may well be that parents can play a significant part in deciding with teachers how the money raised can best be spent' (Ibid, p.38).

Of course, not all teachers are so condescending, nor so protective of their territory, as is suggested by this one document. But the fact that such opinions still exist in 2007 against a backdrop of local governance and management and the enshrinement of ‘meaningful lay participation’ in educational decision making, is surely significant.

When it comes to running schools, parents have generally been kept firmly at arm's length. Even at the pre-school level where involvement is most natural and expected, there is evidence that parents are frustrated by their powerlessness, and that it must rest with the teacher to take the initiative: 'Parents show considerably greater interest in their children's pre-school experience than the staff in charge of children's groups appear to take into account. )( Regan, D. 1977, Local Government and Education, London: Allen and Unwin) Open access and shared experience do not necessarily on their own bring about better understanding and greater knowledge... parents may need far more explanation and discussion than they are given' (Smith, T. 1980, Parents and Preschool, London: Grant McIntyre. p.77)

As we have seen here, the government's answer to this issue was to offer parents the powers to run schools, the aim being further to increase parental influence at school in terms of responsibility, authority, and accountability rather than just participation. Indeed, the legislation guarantees a parent majority on all governing councils. What still needs to be addressed, however, is the lingering question of educational exclusion, of white lines in playgrounds and symbols saying 'No parents beyond this point'; the question, that is, of giving parents the confidence that their involvement is essential for the children to get the most out of their school, and that this would mean changing the attitudes and values of many teachers.

Where, for example, in pre-service training, do intending teachers learn about communicating with parents, one-to-one and en masse?

How many schools or state education departments provide in-service training to help teachers understand parents and the community?

How many teachers live within their communities, and understand where the children, let alone the parents, are coming from?

How many teachers, principals and bureaucrats send their own children to public schools – the schools, the standards of service for which they are responsible?

And, while schools get much better at reporting what children have done in class, how many schools report to parents on what children are about to do, so that their participation and involvement can be optimised?

The evidence presented here is historical and you may well be thinking 'Well, it's not like that any more, at least not in my school'. There is some significant truth in this. Primary schools, at least, have got a little better at involving parents as equals -seeing them as, indeed, the teachers they naturally are. But some basic questions remain to be answered:

· How many schools, the department, and especially the legal advisers to the Minister recognise or are prepared to advocate for, a set of basic Parent Rights when it comes to state education? In SA advice from Crown Law has been to reject any notion of ‘rights’!
· Many parents still have a very jaundiced view of government education policies: 'All those ideas that should appeal to parents - their freedom to make choices, to have greater influence and greater knowledge - are perceived as a series of shams' (Parent personal communication).
· Resolving conflicts in schools. The teachers' union claims that parental assaults on teachers are growing alarmingly: talk is of prevention and defence, not looking for possible reasons, such as disenchantment or alienation.
· Many principals cannot accommodate an accountability relationship to a governing body in which the majority of governing councillors are lay governors, that is, parents and community members, and the possibility of having to accept decisions with which they may disagree.
· Parents are skeptical about Governments’ rhetoric about the right to choose, when many see they have merely had the right to ‘state a preference' when it comes to the school they wish their child(ren) to attend.
· The system’s ability (through district offices in SA) to select children - as opposed to parents' rights to select the school - is as wide now as it has been for many years.
· Schools have become dependent on behaviour management polices to control the behaviours of (mainly) boys disenchanted with their school life. Little attention is given to learning management policies and differential pedagogy to meet the varying needs of students.
· How long before a student is granted legal aid to start proceedings against their school for giving them a bad education: especially if there is review evidence of underperformance of teachers, the school generally or the school’s management?

So are there historical reasons why parents should be 'apathetic'? Is it because:
· schools are set up by the state?
· schools are coercive, through legislation and regulation?
· control of schools is realistically in the hands of politicians, the professionals, the bureaucrats and the industrial muscle of the teachers’ union?
· the history of education is the history of bureaucratisation (where procedures are set up for the convenience of managers, not for users)?
· local lay people have had only an ‘advisory’ role, and even now there seems an entrenching backlash by some teachers and principals against any meaningful decision making through local governance
· the key interests and beneficiaries in the South Australian Education Amendment Act of 2000 are, ironically, the principals?

Public schools are seen by many as part of a bureaucratic welfare state which, along with other public services - the health service, the railways, housing, social services - is characterised as slow-moving, impersonal, intrusive, unchanging, unresponsive to need or demand: all in all, as something provided for the good of the people, by others, many of whom tend not to use or need them.

Perhaps it is these tensions that lead the public to distrust schools, and for schools to distrust parents - not entirely the fault of the schools, then, but about which, their responsibility to do something. Just as the examples given above show how the world of education and the public find themselves at loggerheads at times, so individual schools can demonstrate a dislike of parents, in ways they don't always intend:
· They sometimes accuse parents openly, or implicitly, of apathy. They use patronising language in letters and signs.
· They (and the department) organise public events and meetings to meet their own time and convenience, using their size and organisational needs to excuse themselves.
· They offer only limited access to people who want to support the school, confining it to fund-raising - support without challenge.
· They react defensively to criticism - being always in the right to the parents, just as they are to the children.
· They deny, or limit, access to parents in learning support.
· They often allow only participation after the event.

Perhaps those parents who are labeled by schools as apathetic are actually, and actively, rejecting much of what they are being forced to accept.
And rejection of part is seen as rejection of the whole.

However, 'the charge of apathy can in some circumstances usefully be rejected in favour of the concept of resistance through withdrawal from, or rejection of, what is provided.' (Humphries, S 1981, Hooligans or Rebels? An oral History of Working Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939, Oxford: Blackwell) It is, of course, not in the interests of rulers and managers to interpret apathy as rejection.

Apathy is presented as a kind of fatalism, in which people cannot see that they have any control, or even influence, over events which profoundly affect their lives - it is therefore a product of the system - including the schools' part of the system. 'Fatalism in the guise of docility', wrote Paulo Freire (a writer somewhat out-of-fashion these days, except for post-modernist constructivist neo-luddites)'and is the fruit of an historical and sociological situation, not an essential characteristic of a people's behaviour'. (Friere, P. 1972, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin.)

In the Golden Age - which is always twenty, thirty or forty years ago - children all learnt to read and write and all behaved impeccably - sometimes mischievously, but never wickedly, or without respect. Indeed, children 'respected' firm discipline.

Whatever the reason, some conflict remains in schools and there are a limited number of responses open to parents in dealing with it. Some of these are similar to those characteristics shown by governing councillors which principals particularly dislike - the various manifestations of aloofness and interference.

In addition to these, alienated parents indulge in gossip (sometimes of an extreme nature), making allegations of the most unlikely improprieties, covert criticism, collusion with the anti-school behaviour of students, and aggression towards teachers.

Schools that Work with the Community

We have seen how some schools antagonise, while others are seen as indifferent to, the needs of some of the parents and children who are their clients or customers (or whatever term is in current fashion). The schools that avoid these negative relationships are those that see their parents and children as members. This is, in essence, whether or not it is labeled as such, a community education approach.

Community education is a series of paradoxes. It implies the de-institutionalisation of education that is predominantly based on institutions. There are five 'articles of faith' based on 'a belief in mutuality and the strength and virtue of collective endeavour' (Rennie, J. 1990, “Why community education?”, in Poster, C. and Kruger, A. (eds) Community Education in the Western World, London: Routledge.):
· that the seeds of the solutions to a community's problems are contained within that community;
· that education is a lifelong activity;
· that a full and appropriate use of all resources is a matter of common sense;
· that all have a contribution to make;
· that the notion of citizenship remains a basic tenet.

Community education is an approach that any school at any phase can adopt, regardless of designation and resources (although resources undoubtedly help). What are its characteristics? Community schools regard schools as a service, and access to lifelong education as a right. They:
· work with families and the community, recognising adults as learners and as teachers;
· encourage participation, giving decision-making powers to parents and the community;
· identify and attempt to meet needs;
· offer individualised provision;
· are flexible with provision, time, and resources;
· regard teachers as servicing need – providing a responsive and public service.

This vision conflicts with the traditional role of schools as working exclusively with children; providing direction and coercion; making uniform provision regardless of need; having time-honoured systems and rituals; and regarding teachers as deliverers of knowledge and power.

Community schools will at least encompass all the elements of a school that works with its community. Here are some of the things governing councils might want to think about:

Relationships with Parents

A governing body that knows what its duty to, and its role in, the community is, will accept that many parents share a number of common expectations. They want:
· the best for their children - in schooling as in everything else. This means for most, a high quality, broad education, in a caring, effective institution;
· regular, reliable and accessible information about what the school is up to and how this affects their child(ren);
· information about their children's progress and achievements, about problems and, especially, help in identifying ways in which they themselves can support their children's learning; finally,
· most parents want to be taken seriously - to have a say and be listened to, to contribute to the life and work of the school and to their child's part in it.

All this assumes a proactive relationship between parents and the school – not information after the event, as is so often the case.

It assumes that parents will be told, in each subject area (and regardless of the age of the child), what the child is about to study - not what they have just studied; and how the parents can support that learning, not just how the child has done.

It assumes that information will be given to parents in ways that they can best understand, explore and use; that teachers report to parents at appropriate times in appropriate surroundings, using appropriate language, and treating the exercise as a dialogue where both partners have something to offer.

It assumes that the annual report to parents and the annual general meeting are couched in appropriate language and style; presented attractively in a style that parents associate with interest and involvement, not a distant bureaucracy; that events for parents are challenging but not threatening.

It assumes that schools - and their governing bodies, with their parent and community composition is the proper vehicle for this - do not blame parents and children for non-attendance and non-involvement. Rather, they take the responsibility for non-involvement upon themselves, recognise that low rates of participation are a function of the historical, social, cultural and demographic background of the school, and that only the school can do something about it.

It assumes that schools recognise the enormous benefits for themselves, the incalculable pay-offs there are in children's commitment, attendance, attitude and behaviour, as well as for the community, in having a parent body that is proactively supportive.

On the whole as anecdotal evidence shows, 'most parents are happy with standards in their children's schools and most feel welcome'. However, many feel that some things should change; and, of course, parents are judging schools against their own memories and experiences. In other words, parents are happy with children's standards compared with what they remember of their own, not as if schools are being judged without any cultural reference points.

Participation of parents has to be meaningful, as well as proactive.

It must be focused on the only interest that they share with the school - the progress of the child. While social events may have their place, this is only as an extra, tacked on to the real work because people have found that they also enjoy each other's company: 'the evidence shows (that) once teachers and parents interact on some regular basis around specific activities, mutual reservations and fears become transformed, with positive results for the personal and academic development of students and for parents' and teachers' attitudes. (Fullan, M. (with Steiegelbauer, S.) 1991, The New Meaning of Educational Change, London: Cassell.)

A useful checklist for teachers in talking with parents about their child might be:
· Be honest and specific.
· Be flexible. Seek the parents' opinion so that you can work together on solutions and ideas.
· Observe carefully. Notice how you are feeling and how that is affecting the discussion. Recognise that parents may be feeling inhibited or tense and give time for them to take in what you are saying and offer their views.
· Listen. Concentrate and show you are listening by adopting an appropriate posture and by seeking clarification, reflecting and summarizing.
· Help the parents relax. They are on your territory. Give them a chance to contribute to the conversation.
· Allow silences for thought and reflection. Many of us have been brought up to believe that silences are awkward. Yet talking can be an interruption and disruptive. Silences allow people time to collect their thoughts and continue.
· Be positive about the child. Give examples, not generalities.
· Ask questions which lead the conversation. Avoid putting answers in the parent's mouth. Allow questions that are difficult or challenging for you.
· Answer questions honestly. Avoid justifying or going on the defense. If it is difficult for you to say, express the feeling. If you do not know the answer then admit this. Do not make promises that you know you cannot fulfill or reassure with improbabilities.
· Remember, good relationships take time. Allow the relationship to grow. It is not friendship but a viable working partnership that you are seeking. This does not mean that you have to agree on everything but it means you need to respect and value each other's experience.

Parents do not just want to be presented with problems. Schools and parents should work together towards solutions.