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With teachers’ organisations committed to boycotting next year’s SATS for eleven year olds and Gordon Brown making a speech about parent power, schools policy is back in the spotlight. The debate is bound to be emotive. Society will never be perfect and schools are always a likely culprit for perceived social ills. Discussion about how to educate is weighed down by ideological baggage, and, as good traditional teaching is better than weak progressive teaching (and vice versa), there’s enough evidence to reinforce any prejudice.

Teachers may hate SATS but they provide a framework for school accountability and for feedback about a child’s progress and for these reasons parents tend to favour them. A few weeks ago I attacked spurious and reactionary research from the ATL which claimed to prove that parents were becoming more irresponsible and hostile. Today,  Gordon Brown will promise to make it easier for parents to demand action if their children’s school is below par. This is in part an attempt to counter Conservative plans for parents to be able to set up their own state funded schools. 

All in all, a depressingly adversarial picture  is being painted. Yet, what we need is a more ambitious and collaborative relationship between schools and parents.  We know, for example, that parental engagement in their child’s education is the single biggest determinant – more important even than family income – of that child’s success at school. If schools saw parents not as trouble makers or difficult customers but as partners they might take more seriously the slow and difficult process of developing a strong set of mutual expectations and norms to frame that partnership.

Over the coming years of public sector austerity schools face making difficult choices. If parents have been kept at arms length they will make these choices more difficult and controversial. But if parents are genuine partners they are more likely to appreciate the pressures and try to find concrete ways of helping the school to cope.

Some schools are taking parental engagement seriously. They must find the national discourse wholly unhelpful, contrasting the shallow posturing of ministers and teachers’ ‘representatives’ with the patient and subtle work of re framing local relationships.

And, as Labour MPs debate the merits of a wholly publicly owned  Post Office, they might want to reflect on why, in a service as significant to society as schooling, the relationship between public service professionals and the public is such a confused and antagonistic terrain.


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