An independent school is in an unusual position in that its ‘customers’ (the people who pay the money for a service) are the parents, but its ‘consumers’ (the people who actually receive the service) are their children. In most cases, too, an independent school would have to consider that the service parents are paying for is delivered over quite a long period of time - anything up to fifteen years, in fact- and the final product can be quite a subjective one. For most of the time at school, a child is part of an ongoing process with many different stages and plenty of chances for things to develop not quite according to any original plan.
It’s an ongoing process which involves both school and parent.
A very important part of a successful philosophy about this should be that parents and the home environment play a hugely significant role in the way in which children develop educationally. This becomes even more worthy of consideration when you take into account the difference between ‘customer’ and ‘consumer’: parents as fee-payers need to be involved in how their child is being delivered to if only to make sure that they are getting a good deal!
How a parent gets involved and how schooling is presented to a child when he or she is at home thus becomes more important than might at first be thought. Children can pick up on parental anxieties and have poor expectations from their school or schooling simply because a school-based education might not appear to be being valued at home; it is also conceivable that a child might compartment ‘education’ as something which only occurs at school, while time at home becomes ‘free time’ and has ‘nothing to do with learning’.
To get this right, learning has to be defined as
a) something of vital importance to a person’s well-being on many levels
b) something which takes place potentially all the time in a number of different settings and
c) something which needs to be encouraged by everyone who might act as an opinion leader for a child -which obviously includes the parent.
Parents can support their child’s learning by appreciating their efforts and achievements. Parents being positive and showing children that education is important and will benefit them, even if they are unfamiliar with the language, the curriculum or the school system, is a big step towards making sure that a child recognises a) and b).
Parental involvement in their child’s school also communicates to children that education is important and that their concerns will be listened to. Children benefit from having both their parents show an interest in their schooling, even when they do not live together. Parents living apart can still share this role and parents should be able to ask a school to make sure information is sent to more than one address if they wish.
Some schools have a ‘home-school agreement’ which sets out expectations and responsibilities so that parents have some idea of what is being offered and what sort of final product to expect. This sounds good and works for many, but a truly focused independent school would go further than that.
A good school should have a dynamic, fluid relationship with parents so that their expectations and the school’s delivery are free to evolve throughout the years that a child attends a school, to match what a child needs and what parents expect over time. What may have been predicted or expected in the Infants might progress, advance, mature, grow, expand, spread, alter, change into something which was initially unimaginable. To track with an individual’s progress through a complex curriculum over many years is difficult and requires expertise and hard work. It will also require parents’ involvement and continued communication as a parent.
In practice, how would this ‘dynamic, fluid relationship’ work? Obviously communication with the child is paramount. If there is a difficulty, it would help to talk to a child and then to the class teacher or tutor. If a parent still feels the problem isn’t being addressed, they should be able to ask for a meeting with the Head. It helps to get to know the school and staff before there is a problem so if something comes up, parents aren’t trying to find their way around at the same time as sorting a problem.
In real terms, almost all difficulties arising in a good school are resolved in the first step, very quickly. But having a ‘dynamic, fluid relationship’ with parents means that they should always feel that these communication channels are open to them and for them.
It’s also important, in establishing and maintaining this relationship, to know where parents are based and how we can best a school can contact them. Updating records is important - postal address, phone numbers, e-mail addresses - so that the school can keep in closer touch.
Like any relationship, that between a school and its parents can develop and mature and become richer over time - and everyone will win.