Renaissance of the home-school agreement?

It’s an often repeated claim that within-school variation is larger than that between schools. This tends to refer to achievement data but is sometimes heard in relation to qualitative aspects of school provision too.

I wonder if the same holds true at the current time? Has the lockdown-dictated period of remote education and partial opening led to a reduction in the differences of, say, effectiveness of teaching & learning within schools, or has this increased? And what differences are there now between schools?

At policy level the potential for variation in the quality of provision has undoubtedly been considered. Indeed, several high profile figures, such as HMCI Amanda Spielman, have voiced concern about the absence of a national expectation for the quality of remote education.

In reality such a statement may only be of limited use. In order to be applicable across the diverse phases and practical contexts of every school it would have to sit at a fairly generalized level. Moreover, it would have to be mindful of the significant limitations that schools and pupils are operating within, including the lack of sufficient technology and connectivity experienced by some of our most disadvantaged pupils. Setting a stretching level of expectation centrally would require the resources to make delivery of it possible.

But there are other problems too. For example, a truly ambitious ‘national expectation’ would likely require significant amounts of training for those staff who need support. This might include learning how to operate remote learning platforms but could equally apply to building a better understanding of components of effective teaching – perhaps things like Rosenshine’s principles – as we know that effective remote provision is likely to be built on the same principles that underpin effective classroom teaching. As the EEF’s recent rapid review states, “ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example through clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when lessons or support are provided.”

So, does this mean that establishing some sort of ‘expectation’ is a waste of time? I’m not sure that it does.

Codifying expectations

There are several benefits to having a clearly defined and shared set of expectations, providing it is sensible and has the support of those involved:

  1. It underlines the central tenet of our education system: education is an entitlement for all children. By codifying this in our expectations for remote learning we help to enshrine and protect the place of education, on behalf of young people, in the midst of an all-consuming national crisis.
  2. It allows us to set out the key features of our approach, providing a reference point for staff, pupils and parents. This should be built on the best we know about how pupils learn and what they should be taught. Having to codify expectations might force us to consider what matters most and the opportunity cost of the decisions we make.
  3. We can establish the right level of ambition during what is undoubtedly a very challenging time for schools and pupils, balancing what we want for pupils with the best we can reasonably achieve for them, and with them; an important aspect of any set of expectations in this context is likely to include how we look after their wellbeing.
  4. It provides provides a transparent means through which leaders, teachers, pupils and parents can be more certain about their roles and responsibilities during this unique period of education. This is particularly significant because there are aspects of these roles and responsibilities which have shifted as a result of COVID-19. For example, the demands on parents are in many cases greater than in more ‘normal’ times, especially parents of younger children whose assistance with remote learning tasks can be the difference between the child making progress through the the curriculum or not.

But just because a case can be made for the importance of a codified set of expectations does not mean the agency and appetite to do this lies only with central government. In fact, what I have outlined above may be most effective if it is not the work of central government.

And the best thing is that schools are already familiar with the mechanism through which it might be achieved: the good old home-school agreement.

Home-school agreements

Although not a legislative requirement since 2016, many schools continue to share a home-school agreement with pupils and parents. For some schools this is little more than a tradition of Year 7 transition but in other schools it is a more sacred document which is referred to routinely in school life, including when parents have questions and concerns about an aspect of the school’s expectations, procedures and routines.

Setting out expectations for remote learning at the start of this crisis was hard. Back in March few had a sense of how enduring and pervasive this challenge would be. Moreover, few had the experience of trying to teach a remote or blended curriculum on this scale. Some twelve or so weeks later my feeling is that schools are better placed to dissect and define the approach they feel will work best in their context. They will know better what they need from their teachers, pupils and parents – and understand better the barriers they face.

Therefore, I wonder if the home-school agreement should find a new lease of life in these troubling times. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to frame it as a home-school partnership as never has the term ‘partnership’ been more appropriate than at present. We all know the old phrase that ‘you can lead a horse to water…’, only COVID-19 has meant we can’t even get those horses close to the watering hole without the support of parents and others, let alone take on the drinking.

Aside from it’s external use it may also help schools to raise the bar a little internally as well, where this is necessary. We know that teachers have done a fantastic job throughout this crisis. But we also know that some find the technical aspects of remote learning difficult, and others are continuing to develop their pedagogical and curricular understanding. Perhaps the clarity of expectation encoded in an appropriate home-school agreement might help to sharpen the focus for this development, leading to appropriate training and support – beneficial for teacher and pupil.

There are simple but effective ‘rules’ that benefit everyone. And these can be easy to overlook for busy teachers having to teach in new ways. For some good work in this area we can look to Oak Academy. Take, for example, their key principle that all Oak lessons should be device-agnostic. This is so powerful as it reduces the likelihood of frustration and disengagement from the outset.

And yet I sometimes hear of schools out there where teachers are recording narrated PowerPoints which pupils can only access if they have that specific program. Frustrating if they have to use dad’s laptop to view these PowerPoints. Terminal if the child is trying to access it on the average smartphone. And this can easily be avoided by establishing clear expectations for staff – in this case that narrated PowerPoints must be exported as videos.

Clarity, not criticism

Note, none of this a call for greater monitoring. The home-school agreement is not a stick to beat anyone with. It’s about building greater levels of clarity for teachers and parents about how they can best support children.

And if the government decides to outline a broad national expectation, that needn’t be a problem (as long as it is sensible). It can be viewed alongside, or located within, the school’s existing home-school agreement, acting as a useful benchmark against which the school’s own partnership document can be checked to see if anything is missing. My guess is that most school’s agreements would go far beyond what the DfE can serve up nationally in any case.

But one of the most compelling arguments for schools refreshing their home-school agreement is that it will bind them into an evaluative process. They’ll need to give deep thought to what seems to be the best approach to take. Which things will the success of their approach absolutely depend upon, and which are less essential when teaching remotely? What does evidence and experience suggest they should do?

And this evaluative process can stretch beyond school leaders too. It might give a useful focal point for staff to contribute their growing experience, further developing that sense of shared endeavour.

For multi-academy trusts this might form a piece of work that draws upon and consolidates experience from across a group of schools, leveraging their collective insight for the benefit of their communities of teachers, pupils and parents.

And perhaps the most interesting aspect is the opportunity to engage with parents, possibly through stakeholder engagement groups, to listen to their input on the barriers they face and how the school might be able to support. Whether this is about parents wanting more certainty about the amount of work pupils will receive, or the form that feedback might take, gathering the views of parents is likely to be illuminating. It might also help them to engage with the school in the spirit of partnership. Of course, there may be some with tough messages or views about remote learning that we don’t agree with, but this isn’t new territory for schools and it often provides opportunity as much as consternation.

Finally, the home-school agreement needn’t be seen as something immutable; it may evolve further as the needs of education change – such as a move towards a blended or hybrid approach. Indeed, it may be better to position a remote learning home-school partnership as an addendum to the ‘normal’ agreement, rather than its replacement. If further periods of lockdown are required after September, having something ready to go that you can reach for might be helpful.

Summary

In short, it is not surprising that various people (including policy makers, leaders and parents) might consider the extent of variation within and between schools in terms of how they are meeting the challenge of COVID-19. However, regardless of any government intervention in this area, it is schools themselves that hold the key to securing the best remote learning within the constraints they are operating within.

The home-school agreement is one tool they might use to do this. And it’s one that schools and parents own – not government. Maybe it’s time to dust it off…

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