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  • Schools and Parents in Partnership 

    The Second Vatican Council has many challenges for all of us, but perhaps one of the greatest is contained in the Declaration on Christian Education which says, “since parents have given their children life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their off spring and therefore must be recognised as the primary educators. This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supported where it was lacking.” (#3)

    Indeed, in our own history of Catholic Education in this country one of the great tensions when the Bishops responded to legislative changes that made education free, compulsory and secular by establishing a structure of Catholic schools, was the fact that this may remove the rights and responsibility of parents for the Christian education of their children. Thus, the relationship between parents and schools is always a matter for consideration and one that continues to develop. The same Vatican document, in the same paragraph, makes the role of the parents clear. It says, “parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man (sic), in which the well rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. Hence the family is the first school of the social virtue that every society needs.”

    It is clear that the fundamental development of the child as a fully rounded human person rests with the family. The role of the school is therefore, different. Parents delegate to the school the professional side of education that they do not necessarily have the tools to impart. Teachers are trained in curriculum, in the subject matter they teach and in understanding of how children learn. It is certainly not to be expected that parents should be familiar with all these areas.

    However, there are different levels at which parents and schools relate. In some cases there is no interest at all shown by some cases (hopefully rare) there is no interest at all shown by the school in the lives of the parents.

    On the other hand, there are many times when some parents show no interest at all in what happens at school. “It’s the schools job,” they say. “I leave it to them.” Conversely, there are what teachers, perhaps unkindly, refer to as “helicopter parents”, those who are forever interfering in what happens in the classroom, showing an over protective interest in the child’s development and, in fact never leaving the teacher to do his or her professional role. There are also those parents who are regularly or even constantly critical of the teaching profession, of teachers and of the school. None of these approaches is in any way helpful to the development of real partnership.

    Of course, there are many parents who are very keen to be involved. This can range from involvement in working bees, reading groups, parents and friends association, fund raising, etc. Quite obviously this is becoming more and more difficult for parents as work and family demands continue to exert pressure on time and energy. Somehow, it seems anomalous that parents whose main responsibility is for the wellbeing of their own children should be spending so many many hours away from home helping at the school!

    In fact, parents delegate the role of the education of their children to the school. Delegation does not mean a handing over of all responsibility. That delegation cannot work if parents and teachers are not “on the same page.”

    It is encumbent on the school constantly to be seeking ways of involving parents in the life of the school at a deep and meaningful level. This may mean by keeping parents informed of what is happening in the classroom, encouraging them and supporting them in their efforts to assist the child with their learning. Of course, the values that are presented at the home must be those reflected in the school. The development of the child’s faith, similarly, must be the combined work of school and parent. It is quite futile for the school to be encouraging the child in his or her growth in faith if it means nothing in the home. Equally, the schools efforts become meaningless in this regard if there is no shared understanding.

    One simple but important way that parents can make sure that they are working together with teachers is regularly to be enquiring about the child’s learning. The old question, “what did you learn at school today?” is always important. Even if the answer is, “nothing!” the question remains. It demonstrates an interest and is a statement that the parent believes that education matters.

    Parents also need to be comfortable and confident in approaching teachers to discuss their child’s learning and development. Of course, this is a mutual exercise, one that must be promoted by both school and parent. Once again, the approach to the teacher demonstrates a real interest in education and the child’s learning.

    There are other ways of ensuring that this partnership thrives, too. Perhaps membership of a school board might be an option for some, tough it is not for every person.

    The fact that a genuine partnership between parent and school is necessary remains. The moment that parents and school come into conflict, there is a problem to be resolved. The moment that parents show little or no interest in the child’s learning, there is a problem that must be resolved. The moment that the school stops seeking ways to engage parents in this partnership means there is a problem that once again must be resolved.

    The Vatican document The Catholic school at paragraph 73 says, “having chosen the Catholic school does not relieve parents of a personal duty to give their children a Christian upbringing. They are bound to cooperate actively with the school – which means supporting the educational efforts of the school and utilising the structures offered for parental involvement, in order to make certain that the school remains faithful to Christian principles of education.”

    A later church document, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, says at paragraph 20, “the constant aim of the school should be contact and dialogue with the pupil’s families, which would also be encouraged through the promotion of parents associations, in order to clarify with their indispensable collaboration that personalised approach which is needed for an educational project to be efficacious.”

    Very clearly, this responsibility lies both with school and with parents. Only when it is a thriving and lively partnership will the school maximise its potential and the same can be said of parents. Indeed, as one principal I once worked with said “you as parents know your own child intimately. I as a teacher know hundreds of children a little bit. Putting those two sets of knowledge together, we can do great things.”