12 APRIL 1975, Page 23


Parent and school—the vital partnership

Paul Griffin

During the late 'sixties the heads of many schools, and in particular the headmasters of independent boys' schools, learnt an indelible lesson. It was that if a school neglects its parents, they in turn will neglect their children's schools, and that all will suffer in consequence.

In the 'thirties my own parents talked to my housemaster perhaps twice in five years; neither he nor my headmaster was wont to write to them except in the most formal terms. There was no feeling of guilt on either side: school was one world, home was another. In day schools after the war, and perhaps chiefly in the state system, schools and parents came to work more closely together through PTAs and other means; but the public boarding schools remained largely aloof. Only in connection with the raising of money did the fact strike them that the shrinkage of their catchment areas gave them opportunities Eo tap a great fund of local goodwill.

Historians will no doubt be able to tell us what happened in the late 'sixties, when madness seemed to hit the younger generation. Did some extreme political committee decree that from 1966 onwards, drugs on a new scale were to be imported into the UK? and that young people's protest movements were to be formed and encouraged to vandalism and violenGe? It was this atmosphere that teenage Britain breathed in the late 'sixties. It was like a new disease, from which no immunity yet existed, and it produced intense feeling, high frequency of drug abuse, wilder and wilder assumptions about the alternative society, more, and more daring, underground newspapers. The high point was the summer term of 1969, which must have produced more grey hair among head teachers than any other spell of twelve weeks in history. Drugs and underground papers were being passed round in their schools, the Schools Action Union was recruiting their pupils, they themselves were exposed to anonymous threatening letters, abusive telephone calls, slogans on their walls, bricks at their windows, disloyalty from trendy young staff, and leaflet attacks in a new form of English prose; and of all this the great majority of their parents were sublimely and peacefully ignorant. Four out of five parents of drugtakers would have hotly denied the possibility of their sons and daughters touching the stuff.

At the time, it may have seemed like the end of the world; yet now, only five years_ later, boys and girls seem more or less what they have always been. There is trouble in schools, sometimes of rather a new sort, but on the old scale, and quite manageable. It really was only a question of homes and schools making contact, and educating each other.

The important lesson is now learnt. It is that a school's stability, like a child's stability, is related to the amount of affection provided' by parents. If a school is understood, appreciated, and needed; if it is prepared to talk to parents; it will flourish. Had we schoolmasters been in better partnership with our parents in 1966, the remaining years of the decade would have been many times easier than they were.

Does this mean that the current talk of violence in schools, and any other major trouble that may arise, should be attributed to lack of understanding between schools and their parents? Not quite, because schools and families cannot exist in a vacuum, and the degree of pressure from outside botit has to be taken into consideration;: but if that pressure can be kept at a reasonable level, and if home and school look at matters in the same light I believe the future can only be cheerful. However we may talk of the breakdown of the family, it remains true that parents rove.their children and are prepared actively to seek their good by supporting a school they value. What other pressures exist? and how can they be kept to a reasonable level? There are two obvious pressures: a sideways one from the media and other social influences on the young, and to some extent on their parents; and a downwards one from the world of educational authority on the school.

We have to ensure that the media, and anyone else dealing with the young, understand the vital' parent-school relationship and; as far as is in their nature, refrain from driving wedges into it. The unhappy political divisions on the subject of education make it particularly tempting for, say, a newspaper to act irresponsibly here. Any stick may seem good enough for a Conservative journalist to beat a comprehensive school, or for a Labour journalist to beat an independent school. In that sort of atmosphere, the expulsion of four boys from a public school in 1967 generated press controversy unrelated. to the merits of a case which could'. have occurred in any type of secondary school. The current talk of violence in schools is only too easily taken as 'proof' that corn

prehensives are no good. We ourselves may watch the goings-on at Dr Rhodes Boyson's old school not because we have any genuine concern about the human beings involved, but in the hope that one of our preconceived ideas about education will be 'proved'.

The pressures on the school are, unfortunately, also tied up with the political factors. On the other hand some are beneficial. It would be pleasant to imagine schools and parents left to themselves. Parents know broadly what they want from schools fOr their children, and with obvious exceptions their ideas tend to be shrewd, as well as being based on their child's capabilities. Any head knows the value of the average parent's candid opinion of his child, and seeks, within the limits of his facilities and staff, to build on it. However, the provision of these facilities and staff require decisions taken outside the school itself, whether by a governing body or a local education authority. New methods of teaching will be evolved and arrive at the school via new staff, the inspectorate, the Schools Council, and the Department of Education and Science. These outside pressures can be very heavy indeed, to the point of interfering in the partnership between school and parents. This is easier to resist at an independent school. Although the heads of LEA day schools up and down the land have a great deal of freedom in detail, they have to be strong to resist political manoeuvring.

Fortunately, and whatever the rights and wrongs of educational reorganisation, I believe we have moved towards sanity in these last five years. In 1967, I remember two cases of boys in mental trouble, whose psychiatrists recommended them, without making any reference to the schools themselves, to leave at once. Only four years ago, I remember a young 'expert' declaring on Radio Four that marihuana was a clean, sweet drug which all young people should learn to use. These in their different ways were cases of violence being done by ignorant outsiders to the vital partnership between parents and schools. If we feel that such stupidity is less likely to occur now, it is probably because the understanding of all of us has been enlarged. This augurs well for the future; and the future of a generation of youth is the future of the whole country

Paul Griffin was formerly headmaster of Aldenham School