Working parents may feel they are excluded from the life of their child's school, says Gayle Goshorn
Family-friendly is a term mostly associated with employers, but how family-friendly are schools, which come into contact with more than one member of a family?
As companies begin to recognise that employees are parents, are schools recognising that parents are employees?
And as the Government sings the praises of getting all parents out to work, how does this chime with its other mantra about education?
Working parents may feel as excluded from involvement in their children's schooling as the unemployed parents in deprived areas at whom most of today's outreach programmes seem to be aimed. The frantic mother who shoves child, lunchbox and homework towards the school door with one eye on the clock and the other on her train timetable may envy the parents who can stand around the gates socialising with each other and chatting with their child's teacher, while she mutters excuses about why she can't help with library duties this week, bake cakes or make up the ratios for the class outing. Those fortunate enough to have full-time jobs may be the first to be stereotyped as 'pushy parents', while actually they are painfully aware of not pulling their weight.
What working parents really want is more than out-of-school childcare. Anne Longfield, director of the Kids' Clubs Network, thinks the statutory home-school agreement would be a good place to start - after all, it is supposed to be a two-way contract.
She says, 'The parents pledge yes, I'll get them to school on time, yes, I'll help with their homework - but the school should also pledge to help the working parents, so the parents wouldn't feel they were being unreasonable for asking.
' Anne thinks schools could be doing more to change with the times, but are still too much like the gas board, expecting users to stay in to suit their convenience. It's a view shared by Mary Crowley, chief executive of the Parenting Forum at the National Children's Bureau. 'Schools should approach parents with an open mind, and ask, what do you want? What would help you? - rather than with the idea of what parents should be told to do. It's yet another reason for parents to feel guilty,' she says. 'We've suggested among other things that schools should visit parents at home and hold meetings in more neutral venues than the school.
' Anne Longfield cites as another innovation a school in the United States that used voicemail to communicate with parents. The teacher left a message on an answerphone which parents could call to hear about what was going on in the classroom that week and leave messages of their own.
'It's about a culture change,' Anne says. 'Schools need to recognise that the majority of parents work, and if they can communicate with parents, and adapt their practices, they'll have parents on their side. Parents are a huge resource.
' But the ranks of stay-at-home mothers that schools once enlisted to help out are thinning as more of them go out to work, at the very time when schools are strapped for staff and cash. Fathers too are enslaved by the long-hours culture of the workplace just when more of them are putting a higher priority on involvement with their children.
Now the idea of changing the school year to five terms year-round is gaining ground. But the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations (PTA), according to its public relations officer Margaret Morrissey, feels that in plans for a five-term year 'not enough has been considered about the role of parents who work'.
However, teachers feel they are already working in partnership with parents.
'Schools are sometimes disappointed about parental involvement - say in the annual governors' meeting,' says Jerry Glazier, National Union of Teachers national executive member and county secretary for Essex. 'That is their forum, after all. It sometimes depresses teachers that so few parents attend.
' Marian Williams, president of the Essex PTA, admits that she has asked her childminder to attend meetings for her at her children's school when she couldn't get away from work. She believes that one way into the issue of working parents is via funded literacy and numeracy schemes that emphasise family involvement. 'On the back of these funded initiatives, we can make our point,' she says.
And the evidence does show that family learning initiatives boost children's educational success. For example, Share is a project that has been taken up at infant and primary schools in 30 local authorities to involve parents of all kinds in their children's learning.
'It's a right-on way of doing homework,' says Lisa Capper, who manages Share for the Community Education Development Centre in Coventry which developed it. Under the scheme, parents work with their children at home using specially designed activity books for developing literacy and numeracy, linked to the national curriculum, and then meet with the class teacher to discuss progress.
'Parents learn how their children learn and how they are taught in school,' Lisa explains. She reports positive feedback all round - 'Schools say it's good for raising standards, teachers say it's good for helping them communicate with parents, and parents say this is what we wanted to know.' Parents can even be accredited for work they have put into their child's learning, through the Open College Network, and follow-ups on the Share project have found that some parents have used it as a way into NVQs, training or employment. Lisa adds, 'As a result of Share we'd noticed we were good at getting to fathers, so the CEDC has a new project, "It's a Man Thing", where fathers do literacy activities with children.' Another offshoot has been a project using Share materials with foster carers and young children in care.
However, 'family learning' usually implies low-income families, and that most often means unemployed, whereas 'family-friendly' is a code for working parents. There the impetus is still coming mainly from employers.
Anne Kearsley, partnership co-ordinator for the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership (EYDCP) in Leeds, says most of their family link work, such as on childcare provision or holiday play schemes, has been done with employers. She says, 'New companies in town genuinely want to get involved with the community, especially in initiatives with children.' Barclays Mortgages, which has an office of 800 staff on a greenfield site in Leeds, runs an 'hour for hour' scheme that could be used, among other things, by parents who want to help their children's schools.
For every hour of their own time that employees choose to devote to voluntary work for a charity or community event, Barclays will match it with a paid hour off to do it. Anne Kearsley says some staff have applied this to involvement with schools in shared reading, work with special needs children, even building a garden or redecorating playgroup premises.
Creative thinking about what parents and schools can offer each other is what is needed and what, so far, is in short supply. Joe Hallgarten, research fellow in education at the Institute for Public Policy Research, is working on a study on 'Stakeholder Schools', due to be published in June to inform future Government policy. He suggests that parents are more likely to become partners in small-scale, 'bottom-up' home-school links than in the bureaucratic business of EYDCPs and Education Action Zones.
He notes that Government measures on parental leave have been directed at those with babies, not school-age children, and asks, if companies release their employees for jury service or the Territorial Army, why not for involvement in their children's schools?
What the stakeholder schools study hopes to suggest is ways the education service can be restructured in the best interests of children whether their family situation helps or hinders them. The risk is that if the education system becomes too reliant on parents' involvement in children's learning, the children whose parents do not get involved are bound to fail.
Involved or not, the problem with seeing working parents as a group is that they encompass those in low-paid jobs and those with high-flying careers alike.
And just as there is more to a child's school life than academic learning, what parents want is more than spare time to help with homework. Indeed, it could add up to a shopping list - opportunities to socialise with other parents and to meet with teachers informally, earlier notice of special class events, help with organising wraparound childcare, homework that can be incorporated into other family routines, ways to make a contribution without being compared to other parents, ways that their child can see them making a contribution to the life of the school.
But what working parents could offer schools is also diverse - skill sharing, idea sharing, material resources, complementary contributions from the firms that employ them. Despite the fact that more mothers are juggling work with family life, parents in general are today keener to see themselves as active partners in their children's education.
As Anne Longfield at the Kids' Clubs Network says, 'We'd love to see schools physically open their doors for childcare, but we'd also like them to embrace the fact the world has changed - that would be true partnership.'