Parents as Partners: illusion or reality? Issues from Denmark and England

1.1 Introduction

This chapter has a number of aims: firstly, it seeks to explore similarities and differences in the attempts to achieve greater parental involvement in education in two European countries; secondly, it attempts to analyse the problems that have emerged in the two countries as a consequence of this endeavour and, finally, it seeks to offer an explanation as to why the goal of greater parental involvement remains illusive. While attempts to increase parental involvement have been part of the policy agenda of most European countries for a number of years it is interesting to note that there has been a significant shift in the nature of the debate regarding the form that parental involvement should take. The source of the shift of focus can be attributed, in general terms at least, to the impact of the ideas of the new right and the importance they gave to the application of market-forces to both economic and social systems. One important consequence of this shift has been to change the focus of parental involvement from that of relatively passive involvement in generalised support for learning to one of direct responsibility for key elements of policy implementation such as school management and the raising of academic standards.

Changes such as these represent an important part of the rolling back of the welfare state regarded as an integral component of the ‘new’ economics. The impact of these changes was not experienced in the same way in every country because of the different conceptualisations of the nature and purpose of the welfare state in different contexts. It is the implications of the attempt to change the focus of parental involvement in education in two countries: England and Denmark, which form the basis of this chapter.

2.1 Contexts

In both England and Denmark there have been active attempts to import the notion of market economics into education and to urge schools and teachers to raise standards. Both counties have questioned some previously taken for granted elements and have sought to impose greater scrutiny and accountability throughout the education system. Increased parental involvement has figured highly as a means through which government assumed these policy imperatives might be realised. In both countries, however, the strategy of increasing parental involvement has proved problematic and there appears to be levels of resistance and reluctance on the part of both parents and teachers to endorse this new strategy. In the course of this chapter we will (a) examine some of the reasons for this situation, (b) offer suggestions as to its causes and (c) make suggestions for how it might be changed.

Although both Denmark and England share some common aspects of culture and history they have inevitably given different emphases to their social and economic systems. It is not, however, the intention of this chapter to provide a comparative analysis of these systems, interested readers might consult Ravn(1994) for a full review of the evolution of policy and practices. However, it is necessary to provide the reader with some reference points in relation to the development of the welfare state in the two countries and the implications this has for the attempts to achieve greater parental involvement.

The first of these reference points relates to the perception of the welfare state. In Denmark, for example, the role of the welfare state is inexorably linked to a national consensus regarding the creation of an egalitarian state based around social harmony. This is to be achieved in a number of ways but fundamental to its realisation is the role of publicly funded agencies providing high quality services to all citizens as of right. This is in marked contrast to the situation in England where the welfare state is regarded as the means by which the state ensures that a minimum safety net of provision is available below which no individual or family is allowed to fall. This has resulted in very different perceptions of quality of the institutions and the individual employees of the agencies of the welfare state in the two countries. In Denmark, for example, there is a high regard on the part of citizens for the quality and availability of the services provided and the professionalism of those responsible for their delivery. This contrasts somewhat with the situation in England where there is an almost continual obsession with issues such as waiting lists, poor levels of service and a low regard for the professionals who work in the services concerned. While teachers, social workers and social educators continue to be held in high regard in Denmark they are often the subject of considerable criticism by the media and indeed government in England. Even the advent of ‘New’ Labour has not seen any diminution of the criticism of schools and teachers for failing to deliver an appropriate level of educational standards. In the recently published report of the Chief Inspector of Schools (OFSTED 1999) it is alleged that around 14,000 teachers in England and Wales were inadequate and should be replaced. In Denmark although there is no such overt admonishment of teachers and their ability to teach effectively although the traditional high regard for teachers is being questioned in the light of comparisons of international standards in areas such as reading, mathematics and science. This concern has even lead to a questioning of the effectiveness of the ‘Folkeskole’- the 7-16 ‘common’ school for all pupils - as a deliverer of high quality education although there is no immediate attempt to create the diversity of provision in the structure of schools as there is in England.

This leads to the second point of reference as a further important difference between the two countries lies in the Danish view that education is not just about the formal process of schooling. In Denmark there is a consensus that much of the process of education occurs outside the formal structure of schooling and is undertaken directly by families through their involvement in other facilities available through community and other facilities. This contrasts somewhat with the view taken by the majority of parents in England and Wales who have come to regard the school as the essential source of education. Although this view may appear to be a gross generalisation it can be supported in a number of ways. It is interesting to note, for example, that compulsory education does not begin in Denmark until children are seven years old a situation which contrasts with that in England where the compulsory age for starting school is significantly earlier. In Denmark extensive pre-school provision exists in the form of day-care facilities available to parents who wish to make use of them. What is interesting, however, is the emphasis within these facilities which is focused very much on play rather than formal learning. It is also interesting to note that although education is compulsory in Denmark schooling is not and there is a much greater freedom for parents to provide education outside the state system either individually or by joining forces with other like-minded parents who are concerned about the ethos offered by the Folkeskole. This opportunity to access ‘private’ education in Denmark is reinforced through a system of funding whereby the State provides considerable support to such schools to make them accessible to a wide range of families, a situation which contrasts markedly with that in England where fee levels for private schools are often prohibitive.

A third reference point indicating the difference between the two countries lies at the structural level. Mention has already been made of the different starting point for compulsory education and this leads to a more fundamental difference with the Danish Education system based around the ‘Folkeskole’ - a 7-16 comprehensive school for all pupils. In England and Wales, however, the system is built around a distinction between primary and secondary education and allows for an increasing diversity in the types of school available, with schools at secondary level able to ‘select’ some of their pupils and to offer particular specialisms’ in a way that is not found in Denmark. There is also of course, the existence of a significant ‘private’ sector in England whereby parents can ‘buy’ an education for their children outside that offered by the State.

A final point of reference indicating differences between the two systems lies in the extent of the legislation and reports about education which have considered the issue of parental involvement. In England and Wales, for example, there has been an interesting link between the impetus given to parental partnership through legislation and the reporting of government commissioned enquiries into various aspects of the education system. From Newsom (1963), to Plowden (1967) via Vernon(1972), Court(1976) and Warnock (1978) there have been endorsements of the educational value of increased parental involvement reflected in legislation or government circulars. This ground swell of advocacy as we noted in the introduction was characterised by the attempt to improve the amount of support schools and teachers could expect from parents either by enhancing resources, supporting teachers in classrooms by direct teaching either in schools or at home. The Education Acts of 1986 and 1989 Act, however brought about a significant change in the relationship between schools and parents.(see for example Burkhardt 1991) Governing bodies were required to have at least four parent representatives together with representation from the local business community. These changes (together with those brought in by the 1988 Act) can be regarded as forming a watershed in the relationship between schools and parents. Bastiani, a significant contributor to the field, highlighted the parameters of the shift that was being engineered in the relations between parents and schools:

"Relations between families and schools, between teachers, parents and pupils have in a fairly short period of time, become an important contemporary concern. To a large extent, this is because such issues figure prominently on the agendas of politicians, professionals and parents alike" (Bastiani, J. 1989 p5)

He continued by reporting how, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, those involved in the process of education had to come to accept that the nature of the relationship between parents and schools was changing and that new modes of interaction and understanding would be necessary if full advantage was to be taken of this new situation. Bastiani further suggested that there were three underpinning beliefs and values which characterised this new relationship, namely:

These changes can be seen as the culmination of the politicising of what had previously been an uncontested area of publicly provided provision through the process of introducing market economics into the relationship between schools and parents. For the government of the day these changes were part of both a general strategy of releasing market forces throughout society and also of targeting education for very specific purposes. Under- achievement, the transmission of ‘inappropriate’ values, an insufficiently focused curriculum and poor teaching were just some of the issues the government wished to address by unleashing the power of the market. Parental involvement was to be the vehicle for bringing about these changes. As consumers of a service regarded as below standard parents would become the engine of change bringing, in conjunction with the support of local business and commerce an impetus for change and a challenge to the so called ‘educational establishment’. The impact of greater parental involvement would, it was hoped, be seen through a closer scrutiny of practices, a concern with standards and a reassertion of the importance of ‘traditional’ values; it was also anticipated that ‘new’ ideas about the management of resources would be forthcoming.

In Denmark there has never been the clinical division between parents as supporters of learning and as ‘consumers’ of a service. There has, therefore, not been the need for the State to legislate or exhort in the same way that it has felt necessary in England. This can be appreciated most clearly by simply examining the volume of legislation regarding parental involvement that has been introduced. Essentially, policy regarding parental involvement can be found in three pieces of statute. As early as 1958 legislation provided for parents to be directly involved in the decision regarding the placement of their children on the academic or vocational track within the Folkeskole. By 1970 Danish parents were extended the right to be represented on the compulsory School Boards which govern all educational and caring institutions. These rights have been further extended in schools by legislation in 1975, 1989 and most recently in 1994. It is interesting to note how the emphasis in the legislation has, however, changed to give greater weight to the contribution that parents can make to improving the educational achievements of children. For example, the Act of 1994 transfers powers given to the Municipalities in earlier legislation to the School Boards. There are interesting similarities and differences in this piece of legislation and that found in England. For example, the Danish School Boards are now charged under Section 40 of the Act in Folkeskole (1996) with the following responsibilities:

  1. Supervising the activities of the school and ensuring they fall within the remit set by the Municipality.
  2. Laying down the principles for the activities of the school
  3. Approval of the school budget
  4. Approving teaching materials
  5. Proposals for the curriculum of the school
  6. A general responsibility for monitoring progress and report on progress to the Municipality.

Within this general framework the School Board has particular duties which include:

Interesting differences with the situation in England occur at a number of levels. In Denmark the School Boards have a more direct involvement in issues of teaching and learning than they do in England through their responsibility for curriculum and the organisation of teaching. This is part of a process of devolvement to both school and municipality allowing a strong community influence to operate within schools. This close relationship between the School Boards and the intermediary agency in the guise of the Municipality is significantly different than that between the local education authority (LEA) and governing body in England. In effect the degree of devolvement of responsibilities in Denmark has proceeded at such a pace that the Ministry of Education now acts in a consultative capacity and exerts influence not through edicts but through the publication of materials, advice and suggestion aimed at inspiring schools to respond. This is in marked contrast to the increased centralisation that has occurred in England with LEAs progressively emasculated in favour of direct control of schools from the Ministry.

In other areas there are broad similarities with responsibility for budgets, and dissemination of information being a common responsibility of parental bodies in the both countries. However, despite the absence of the sharp divide been ‘home’ and ‘school’ so prevalent in England and Wales we can still see the impact of market thinking in Denmark and in the attempt to increase the responsibilities of parents for both the management and the levels of achievement in schools. For example, in addition to power passed to the school board the Basic School Law (1994) requires a greater degree of co-operation between parents and teachers to improve the development of pupils ‘knowledge and understanding’ indicating quite clearly how the shift has taken root.

Despite the approaches adopted in both countries there is, however, little convincing evidence that the endeavours to involve parents to a greater degree have succeeded. Numerous accounts exist in the literature of particular local initiatives but the general picture is much more depressing. Many of these initiatives focus on efforts to continue the involvement of parents as supporters of learning. Few, however, point to successes in involving parents in key areas of the operation of schools. Typical of the more recent studies in the United Kingdom are those of Deem et al (1996) and Munn (1997) both of whom have highlighted the fact that despite their increased powers governing bodies have exercised very little influence over what happens in the key areas of : teaching and learning; the curriculum; the management of resources or staffing policy. What apparently characterises so many of the areas where parental involvement is supposedly realised is deference on the part of the parental representatives to the ‘professional judgement’. Some schools still have difficulty in finding the number of parent governors required by law. Rarely are parents involved in anything other than peripheral issues they are more likely to act as rubber stamps for the proposals and suggestions of the professionals usually in the form of the headteacher. Many teachers still bemoan the absence of parents from parent evenings and their short lived involvement in schemes to support learning.

Both through creating a market economy and by attempting to increase democratic participation parental involvement has failed to materialise in the way that it was envisaged. Wherever one looks it appears as though the rhetoric of parental involvement seems not to have been fully realised. Certainly, the consumer revolution seems to have, at best, stalled and the involvement of parents as supporters of learning to be no more than stuttering along. There is still, therefore, a reluctance on the part of many parents to pick up the consumerist mantle when it comes to education suggestions that despite legislation, exhortation in the United Kingdom and encouragement and belief in the role of local communities to exercise a democratic mandate in Denmark there are inherent difficulties in realising the ambition of parents taking more responsibility for the operation of education in schools.

3.1 Issues and Dilemmas

Given the difficulties experienced in the two countries the question must be addressed as to whether the endeavour of achieving greater parental involvement is inevitably doomed to failure. In the following section we will suggest that there are a number of dilemmas inherent in this endeavour. These dilemmas can be best understood by analysing the role of the school within society. Various commentators have attempted to account for the evolution of the relationship between parents and schools, David (1994) for example has suggested that the shift we have described above reflects changes in the political landscape with the values of the ‘left’ replacing those of the ‘right’. Although this is an interesting analysis we want to suggest that such a simple dichotomy does not fully reflect the complexity of the situation and that a more comprehensive account is called for. We will suggest that there are at least three ways in which the relationship between parents and schools can be understood but that they are not wholly adequate.

3.1.1 The school as a democratic institution

Increasing parental involvement is one very clear way of reinforcing the notion that the school exists as an instrument in the furtherance of the principles of the democratic state. By increasing the involvement of parents within the school the state can be said to be strengthening the democratic values on which it is based. In attempting to achieve this involvement the state is, however, faced with a dilemma. That dilemma is, in simple terms, whether it is asking parents to become involved as citizens or as parents - the two not necessarily being synonymous. The natural interest of parents, however, is uniquely, with their children. In subscribing to the education system provided by the State parents are engaging in a form of partnership; they are in effect hoping to have their unique expertise shared with that of the teachers and the school. If this partnership is to flourish then the school and the teacher have to achieve a consensus around certain mutual obligations. If either side to these arrangements fails to maintain the contract then there is the risk that the partnership will break down. In both Denmark and England the parameters of the contract are broadly similar and include the provision of an appropriate curriculum suitably adapted to individual needs and an environment in which learning and socialisation can take place. Parents are required to support the school by ensuring their children conform to its general expectations of behaviour and attendance. Whilst a consensus exists around the operationalisation of these contractual obligations then a consensus exists and a form of partnership can be said to exist. The potential for the partnership to be disturbed arises at a number of levels. Classically, the disturbance occurs when children experience difficulties in their social, emotional physical or intellectual development and parents and teachers have to meet to resolve problems. Resolving these problems tests the nature of the partnership. When both parties to the contract can avoid feeling threatened and bring their unique knowledge into what can be regarded as a problem solving process the chances are that the partnership will be preserved and the problem resolved. This is not always the case and a power struggle can ensue leading to a breakdown in the consensus.

In Denmark it might be assumed that there would be a much greater opportunity for parental involvement to be enhanced. This has proved not to be the case. In England where traditions of participation in the operation of agencies are not so firmly embedded it has proved equally difficult to achieve fuller participation by parents. As this model of partnership its unlikely, therefore, to account for every possible interaction between parents and teachers, conflict is, we suggest, an inherent element of the system.

3.1.2 The School as part of the market economy.

As we have indicated above the international trend over the last decades has been to invest individual citizens with greater ‘rights’ as consumers. The motivation for this in part at least has been that it is only through greater participation that higher levels of efficiency will be attained and in the case of education higher standards as measured by improved attainments of pupils achieved. This trend has been implemented in two principal ways. Firstly, parents have been imbued with greater rights, more responsibility and more information to enable them to play a more direct role in the running of schools. This has involved the progressive devolvement of powers to school boards or their equivalent. In Denmark Section 40 of the 1995 Act makes it clear that schools are the responsibility of the Municipality which has had the effect of reducing the influence of the central Ministry. In the United Kingdom school governing bodies have been given increased powers at the expense of the LEA, with the consequence that the Department of Education and Employment has assumed a greater ‘hands-on’ role in the direction of education policy. Secondly, there has been an attempt to create a market or quasi-market within the education sector to induce the benefits assumed to arise from greater competition. In the United Kingdom there is evidence of the operation of market forces. Parental choice has, for example, resulted in differential flows of pupils between schools with the more popular schools attracting more pupils and the additional resources that arise from greater numbers. As these forces continue to operate the logic is that the least successful schools will ultimately become non-viable and cease to exist leaving only ‘successful’ schools able to deliver a ‘high quality’ education. In Denmark there has not been such a full expression of market forces as parents have had the right to send their children to any of the available Folkeskole for a number of years.

In both countries, however, there is no convincing evidence that, in embarking on this course of action governments have succeeded in circumventing the continued reluctance of many parents to become as fully involved in education as was hoped. The attempt to encourage parents to regard schools as part of a market economy has not increased parental involvement to any significant degree and has led to the creation of a number of further dilemmas. These include:

3.1.3 The school as an institution of symbolic control

Our final model as to why parental involvement has not been fully realised relies on the hypothesis of Bernstein (1990)which suggests that education acts as an agency of symbolic control, a means by which the State seeks legitimisation and maintenance of its determining role within society. The idea of symbolic control relies on the assumption, that there is some superficial connection between the political culture of a society and the system of political decision making. As part of this assumption it is suggested that not all ideas and visions of how the State is to function are transferred with the same strength from the political culture to the political decision makers. It is, however, the ideas which are passed on from the political culture to the political decision makers which exist to perform symbolic control. According to Bernstein the same principles apply within the education sector and the application of this principle can be seen in the ways that within education, legitimacy and hierarchies are established through differential values attributed to different aspects of learning. According to Bernstein:

"We shall define the pedagogic discourse as the rule which embeds a discourse of competence (skills of various kinds) into a discourse of social order in such a way the latter always dominates the former.

The rules constituting pedagogic discourse are not derived from the rules regulating the internal characteristics of the competencies to be transmitted." (Bernstein, 1990, 183)

One implication of this is that the rules of the school system and the way they are implemented are obviously more favourable to some children and families than for others.

We can see the operation of symbolic control in relation to the issue of parents as partners in a number of ways. For example, in England the governing body may well choose to favour certain groups of pupils in school at the expense of others or it may respond more favourably to demands from certain parental groups as opposed to others. In Denmark this may happen at the level of the municipality as well as at the level of the school board. The reason why these tendencies will emerge is that certain parents will be more adept at mastering the symbolic code of their school and/or LEA than others. They will, therefore, be able to understand its demands, making them more effective in arguing the case as they see it in favour of their child(ren). Those parents who do not master the symbolic code are ‘handicapped’ when engaging with the school and its formal systems and structures.

The concepts of symbolic control are useful in highlighting a number of fundamental paradoxes in relation to the involvement of parents as partners. We can illustrate the nature of these paradoxes with reference to two examples which we are confident our readers will recognise. We will begin with the case of Peter, a 12 year old boy with moderate learning disabilities. Peter has problems in sustaining relationships with his peers; he is prone to misbehave and become violent towards his classmates. From Peter’s point of view the problem is that, unknown to his teacher, his classmates tease him causing him to lose his temper. Peter can never explain himself in these situations with the outcome that the teacher tends to take the side of his classmates. As the situation develops Peter is less and less able to give his account of the situation increasing his sense of frustration.

Inevitably, one day a serious situation develops. It is a practical craft lesson, Peter is told to cut out a piece of wood precisely 24 centimetres long. The teacher has written the instructions on the board but because Peter has severe problems with reading numbers he cannot complete the task correctly. The teacher is annoyed and asks, in a rather derogatory way, one of Peter’s classmates to help him. As the classmate does this he sticks out his tongue at Peter who immediately loses his temper and throws the saw towards his classmate. In an instant the class is in chaos. The teacher turns round and demands to know what has happened. He is greeted with a whole chorus of boys shouting that: ‘Peter has thrown a saw.’ The teacher’s reaction is instant; he orders Peter to go to the headteacher. Peter runs out of the door shouting and crying. He runs to the special needs teacher with whom he has an arrangement that he can always see her when he gets into trouble. The special needs teacher and Peter discuss the situation. Peter announces that he will never return to the craft lesson. After a long discussion he is persuaded to return but only if the special education teacher explains to the craft teacher the nature of Peter’s problems with reading. The special education teacher discusses the situation with the craft teacher and the next week Peter finishes his work. At home he and his parents have talked about the situation, and they have decided that they want Peter to have an alternative activity until term ends. The parents talk to the headteacher about the problem and their proposal. The headteacher agrees, and Peter is given alternative work for the remaining craft lessons.

There are a number of important issues in this situation which need to be highlighted. Firstly, there is the availability of sustained support available to Peter from the home. Secondly, there is the role of the parents in analysing the situation and devising practical and acceptable alternatives which the school can implement. Finally, there is the agreement amongst the staff to enter into a process of negotiation and dialogue when Peter experiences any difficulties. Clearly, the resolution of this problem was dependent on a number of factors but instrumental is the role of the parents in creating a momentum of pressure to which the school can do nothing but respond. The parents are able to express their legitimate ‘rights’ in a way which is both forceful yet non-antagonistic towards the school. They recognise both their ‘rights’ and also the real problems caused by their son. However, in searching for a resolution of the problem they are able to balance these competing demands.

This can now be contrasted with an other situation in which the interaction between parents and the school takes a very different course. In this case, Martin, also a twelve year old pupil with learning difficulties experiences a similar situation in a lesson. He is reprimanded by the teacher, arrives at the headteacher’s office and explains himself. In the break after the lesson the teacher gives his version of what happened. The teacher concludes that he cannot take the responsibility for Martin in the class any longer and demands that Martin is permanently excluded from the craft lessons. In reviewing the case the headteacher is confronted by a number of situations where Martin has faced difficulties with his teachers. He concludes that Martin has had enough chances and decides that this is no longer an appropriate school for him. He believes there is no point in waiting for a formal assessment of Martin and telephones the educational psychologist and demands that Martin is immediately excluded. The parents are informed about the decision and although they accept the decision ask that he is allowed to spend some time with them at home before he enters his new school. In their minds this is the best that they can do for their son in the circumstances.

We have, therefore, to ask the question why these two very similar situations are resolved differently. Peter’s parents, as we have seen, were well informed about their son’s problem and were not prepared to accept a solution which they or Peter would not find acceptable. This situation was well understood by all those who were involved. Their ability to understand the complexity of the situation and to utilise the processes of the symbolic code of the pedagogic discourse with the school enabled them to act as competent advocates for their child. Martin’s parents on the other hand were unable to exercise that level of understanding; they could not convince the headteacher that he had to search for alternative resolutions other than exclusion. The only concession they could achieve for their son was a short moratorium before he was transferred to a special school.

On reflection we can see that although the outcomes for the two pupils were the same the processes involved were very different and resulted in different experiences for those involved. Peter had been fully involved in the decision making process, and left the school maintaining his self-esteem; he had been heard and understood. Martin on the other hand had been cast more in the role of an onlooker and his exclusion had been achieved without any real involvement on his or indeed that of his parents. It would not be unreasonable to assume that as a result of the experience he would feel diminished having a reduced self-esteem and belief in his own capacity to influence decisions that were made about his future.

As Bernstein said: "The pedagogic discourse embeds a discourse of competence into a discourse of social order". Peter and his family had influence on what happened, Martin and his family had not. No one can remove Peter’s learning difficulties, but because of his parents insistence on influencing and letting their son have some influence on decision making he was able to maintain his self-esteem. Maintaining self esteem is very important, because it provides the strength to cope with difficulties. Peter’s parents insisted on their right as parents to act as advocate for their son. However, they were also cognisant of their role as citizens as they entered the problem solving process and accepted that their son had exceeded the boundaries regarded as acceptable by the school and the other pupils. Because of their ability to master the operation of the symbolic code of the school, they were not rejected as a set of ‘difficult’ parents but accepted as co-problem solvers and participated in the process which determined their son’s future. We hope that by including these examples we have demonstrated the way in which the symbolic code operates in respect of parental partnership.

4.1 The intractability of dilemmas and the acknowledgement of complexity.

In concluding this chapter we will build on the various explanations that have been forwarded to account for the failure to develop greater parental involvement.

We have suggested that the failure to achieve greater parental involvement transcends national boundaries, different traditions and attitudes to participation in the agencies of the State. Efforts to involve parents either as supporters of learning or as consumers seem to achieve only limited success. We will now return to the question of whether this is inevitable. In the three models outlined above generalised explanations are offered to account for this failure. We would suggest that while each of these models offers a partial account it is impossible, given the complexity of the issue, for any one model to offer a convincing explanation. The complexity of social situations is such that they frequently generate a series of dilemmas which cannot be resolved by a single explanatory model. The solution, therefore, in coming to terms with these dilemmas is, in the best tradition of post-modernism, to begin by accepting the notion of complexity and the absence of single explanatory models. The endeavour is to attempt to capture as much of this complexity by accepting the relativity of varying explanations that are offered. In attempting to bring about change in any one particular site the task, therefore, becomes one of applying the various models that are available and testing them in context. The evidence that is forthcoming from this process can then be used to highlight possible factors which might identify avenues which are worthy of pursuit. In relation to greater parental involvement the implications of this would, we suggest, appear to be complex but nonetheless achievable.

We begin by recognising the multi-dimensional nature of the way that the school as a public institution can be conceptualised by pupils, parents, and other members of the community. By accepting this multi-dimensionality and the inherent complexity that arises from this we suggest that one possible way forward is for those charged with the task of increasing parental involvement to initiate a process of review and evaluation based on those situations where individuals(pupils, parents or other members of the community) have had cause to question or challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of a school. This review would examine the ways in which that challenge became manifest and the responses made by the school to that challenge. A series of questions could then be applied to test the extent to which the processes involved facilitated or obstructed participation. The questions would draw from the analysis offered in the three models outlined above; they would be supplemented by additional site or situation specific questions. For example, one direction the review process might take would be to question whether or not the interests of one group of parents was being advanced at the expense of another. In this way it is suggested it is possible to identify both general and specific factors which might inhibit the progress towards greater involvement.

5.1 Conclusion

Parental involvement remains a chimera. We would suggest that a number of conditions need to be in place for this goal to be realised. It is clear that legislation provides a necessary framework through which involvement can be achieved. However, legislation on its own is not a sufficient condition for this goal to be achieved. Likewise exhortation on its own or in combination with legislation will not create the necessary conditions for this to be achieved. We would suggest that in the analysis above we have pointed to a number of additional factors which have to be considered. Firstly, there is a need to ensure that school boards or governing bodies operate as democratically as possible. This involves a commitment to all parents as equal partners in the running of schools and that no sectional interest is allowed to have undue representation on the governing body. This is to be reinforced through the operation of the second factor - the need to ensure that processes of exclusion or rejection masked by the exercise of symbolic control are not operating against the interests of certain parents. This involves ensuring that effective problem solving systems are in place to resolve conflicts between parents and schools ensuring that negative impressions about schools are not transmitted to the local community. A third contributory factor would be allowing parents to exercise ‘real’ power over fundamental decisions regarding the operation of schools. Both Denmark and England have attempted to achieve this but as we have seen there is relatively limited scope for action either because most school budgets are already committed or because of resistance to involve parents in the domain of pedagogy and curriculum which are retained as part of the areas of ‘expertise’ of the professionals. We acknowledge the difficulties in achieving this but if parents are to act not only as consumers but also as experts in their own right then they are more likely to do so if they are given power to make ‘real’ decisions. In this way the application of market forces is likely to see the realisation of a more effective partnership between parents and schools.

We suggest that by drawing on the analytical tools offered by three models outlined above and by engaging in what we choose to call a process of review focusing in particular on the areas we have outlined, will produce a context in which greater participation can be achieved. The process of review may well highlight barriers and obstacles to wider participation and increase the extent to which schools become part of communities and parents become both supporters of learning and active participants in the direction of local institutions.

Dr Kirsten Baltzer and Alan Millward


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