1.2.2 A broadly accepted principle
Looking back over time, parent – practitioner relations didn't get off to a good start. Increased provision for children in the early years, including universal state education, served to create a sense of separation between family and child. Desiree Wilby, writing over 100 years ago, expressed her concern:
The mother is no longer needed, the State has undertaken her work.
Cited in: (Maclure, 1968, p. 78)
Schools have been perhaps slower to develop working relationships with parents than pre school settings. While there is now much evidence of change, there is also considerable variation across the country, and improvements in parental involvement can easily be knocked back when practitioners lack experience of partnership working. If questioned or challenged by parents, unfortunately, many professionals are defensive. On the other hand, defensiveness is almost inevitable given the high level of criticism present in the media in the context of our current 'blame culture'.
The Pre-school Learning Alliance has voiced concerns relating to parental involvement in UK settings. In particular, the organization wishes to see a strengthening of the role of parents in the education of children under five years, (Cassidy, 2002). Working on an equal footing with parents is vital, as is the understanding that neither the practitioner nor the parent is seen as 'knowing best'-each has a distinctive perspective on the child that complements the other. The organisation sees practice in France as a good example of involving parents. France has a strong tradition of state provision, but parents are also able to start their own nurseries aided by the state. In this way, parents can be given increased influence over their children's early education.
Nevertheless, more open and inclusive professional attitudes in recent years have doubtless led to widespread recognition of the importance of parents as partners, particularly during children's earliest years when care and education are closely linked. Parental participation has also been enabled by specific educational legislation, which gives parents greater voice as 'consumers' of a public service.
For example, the Early Years Foundation Stage in England (DCSF, 2008), and also the Scottish and Welsh frameworks, emphasise partnership working with parents.
It is now a requirement for practitioners to consult with parents. There is parental representation at the levels of both local authority and school governing body, and steps are taken to gather parents' opinions during Ofsted inspections.
In the Ofsted publication Are you Ready for your Inspection? A Guide to Inspections of Provision on Ofsted's Childcare and Early Years Registers (Ofsted, 2008) there is mention of, for example:
- the importance of notifying parents that an inspection is to take place
- inspectors talking to any parents who are present during the inspection
- the responsibility of settings to make written statements available to parents (e.g. to safeguard children being cared for from abuse)
- an assessment of how well practitioners are working with parents to promote children's care and education.
Through exercising their right of choice, parents have been encouraged to express their views, and have been assigned a consumer role to improve services for children. (It is worth nothing here that occasionally this has given rise to litigation against an educational setting or local authority, which is, in fact, unlikely to be in the interests of parent-practitioner partnerships.)
New technology has helped the speed and efficiency of communication between practitioners and parents. Many settings have their own websites, for instance, and increasingly use email, text messaging and mobile phones to contact parents. These methods do make it possible to communicate more frequently and immediately than before.
In early years education, it has long been recognised that parents have much to contribute to children's development and education. In settings where informal contact with parents is the norm (as with childminders and playgroups), productive collaboration is already a way of life. However, the way in which a partnership is conceptualised and made workable varies considerably: what is seen as appropriate in one area of the UK may not be considered suitable in another; and what is seen as innovative practice in one setting may be seen as commonplace elsewhere.
Furthermore, parents and practitioners view partnership in different ways. Given that practitioners usually initiate the partnership, they do often take the lead in defining its nature and deciding the extent to which parents enter the professional domain. Practitioners often assume that they know what is in the best interests of parents (Bastiani and Wolfendale, 1996; Edwards, 2002). Partnership, then, is still often one-sided. As one parent said at a conference to discuss the idea of home-school agreements:
I mean, the parents wouldn't just come towards the teachers and say, I want you to sign this agreement that we've just made up, would they?
(Hancock et al., 1998, p. 18)