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Thursday, 14 September, 2000, 06:25 GMT 07:25 UK
Virtual parents' evening - Schools Minister Jacqui Smith

The Department for Education in England is trying to encourage more parents to take an active part in their children's education.

BBC News Online hosted a "parents' evening" with the Schools Minister for England, Jacqui Smith.

Presented by Education Editor, Gary Eason, the 30-minute webcast dealt with some of the many e-mails from users about the new campaign and other matters.

Archived webcast:

Gary Eason: On the line from the Department for Education in London is the junior education minister Jacqui Smith, who's also a parent and a former teacher. Her department's spending 6m on trying to encourage parents to help their children more with their schooling - there are TV adverts, a glossy new magazine and free books that set out to demystify the national curriculum and school attainment targets.

Now we've had many e-mails from you on that and on other subjects. I'd like to start with the thing that's preoccupying everyone at the moment - not least those who've been told there's no school for them tomorrow - the fuel shortage that's caused by blockades on refineries and depots. Jacqui Smith, what are you doing to see that people can continue going to school?

Jacqui Smith: Well clearly, as you suggested, it's very important that we maintain school for people. Some authorities, we know, have already contacted their schools and are making arrangements along the lines of winter pressures but we hope that schools will do, and authorities will do, everything they can to remain open. I certainly believe, from what I've heard recently, that the situation with respect to petrol may well be slightly easing.

I hope that teachers and pupils will make every effort to get school but I think it slightly highlights what people have to understand about this blockade and that it's affecting pretty crucial things in our country like schooling and we're determined that we maintain those schools open for our children and I know that local education authorities are as well.

Eason: Ok. Let's turn to the matter in hand, as it were, loads of e-mails, as I said, lots of different subjects, one you'll like, to start with. This is from Lorraine Burgess who says: "I think it's a great idea to offer parents ideas about how to help their children. I know some will complain of being patronised by a 'nanny state' but any support for parents during the first important years of school life can only be positive. However, Peter Levine says: "Is this idea of involving parents just more spin?"

Smith: Well no it isn't spin is the answer to the first bit and I think Lorraine's absolutely right. What we're trying to do, particularly, is to give parents the sort of information that they quite often need on an individual basis to help their children to learn. And in particularly with the guides what we're really trying to do is, having launched a new National Curriculum this term and having given information to teachers which they've been working on, we said well it's also important that parents know what's going on in the classroom.

As you said I'm a parent myself and I know that sometimes my seven year old comes home and I say to him: "Well what have you done today?" And he says: "Not a lot." I know that's not the truth but it's not always easy to get information about what's happening in the classroom from your children.

So we wanted to make the National Curriculum open to parents and also to give them the sort of tips for things that they might want to do at home that's actually going to help them to support their children in a manageable way because I think the vast majority of parents want to help their children to learn and we want to support them in doing that.

Eason: Ok we'll come back to that point in a minute but we've had an e-mail from Louise Deveney - and I can tell you, you have delighted those people who educate their children at home all the time or otherwise than at school. She says: "This sounds great, does it mean you're going to make all parents aware of how beneficial home education really is?" She complains about the use of the phrase "compulsory school age" but she says parents "ought to be encouraged to take pride in the fact that they know their children best and are best situated to help them learn." Has she got a point?

Smith: What I think - I mean clearly if parents want to educate their children at home they have a legal right to do that - if they contact the DfEE we'll give them information about doing that.

What this initiative is really about is about the vast majority of children who are actually educated in our schools. What we're saying is we think actually children get the best out of their education when there's a partnership between teachers, parents and in fact the pupils as well and it's about helping to build that partnership between schools and parents that is very much one of the key objectives behind our parents campaign this week. Not to say, for the vast majority of parents, that they are going to replace teachers or that they're going to run a sort of mini school lesson at home - that isn't what we've got in mind - but what we do believe is that where parents feel confident about what they can do with their children, understand what's happening in school and can have a dialogue with teachers - that's actually going to help their children to learn the best of all.

Eason: Julia Newman is a bit worried that you're expecting too much from parents. She says: "A parent has a different relationship with a child and teachers expecting parents to teach reading, writing and so on can make for a stressful situation at home. If the child's failing the parents feel fully responsible." What would you say to her?

Smith: I would repeat what I said before: I think what we're not trying to do with this initiative is to turn parents into teachers. Teachers have a particular role in the system, parents as, you know it was quite rightly said, have a particular relationship with their children that isn't the same as a teacher.

But the vast majority of parents want to help their children to learn and there might be all sorts of things that actually some of which they may already be doing, other activities that they're already doing that perhaps with some of the tips that are in our guides could be turned into a fun, informal, learning experience, you know suggestions like when you're watching TV together, the sort of things you might talk about, using your favourite teams trip around the world to actually mark off where they're going on a world map - all of those things I don't think for most children will put a lot of stress on them, it won't feel like they're at school but it will help with their learning.

And actually the point about parents putting stress on to children I do think is important and in particular in our secondary guide we spell out, and in the magazine, we spell out I think for parents: Don't panic if you don't think your child is making average progress, don't panic, perhaps talk about it with teachers if you're concerned but children will develop at different rates.

What we want parents to do is to feel confident about the sort of things they're going to be doing, the sort of things they can do to help them because actually what's interesting we did some research last year and lots of parents said we want to help our children, particularly we want to help them with their homework but sometimes we're worried we might be doing the wrong thing. What we want to do is to give parents the confidence that they're not doing the wrong thing, they don't have to be teachers but they can help their children at home.

Eason: Michael Wearing is worried about those parents who just aren't interested. He says: "What does the government intend to do for the kids whose parents do not provide educational support ensuring that homework is completed", and getting involved in the way that you're talking about - it's a problem area isn't it?

Smith: It is. I think they're in a very small minority - of parents that would fall into that category. I'll come to that in a minute. I would like to reiterate that, actually I think the vast majority of parents actually want to help. Quite often they don't feel confident, they're not quite sure about what to do and I think by providing the information we'll significantly increase the numbers that do.

But we are concerned that all children, regardless of whether they're getting parental support, actually can achieve. And I would point to initiatives like our study support initiative - some of the money that we're pushing into schools for example to help them with homework clubs, to set up the sort of support and facilities outside classroom time but actually will help to support some of those children who perhaps don't have it at home.

But I remain convinced that that is a very small minority of parents - their children need supporting but I think if we provide more accessible and better information for parents a vastly increased number of them will feel confident and will actually be able to do positive things with their children.

Eason: And now somebody called Andy - I don't have a surname but he makes a point I imagine you'll sympathise with. We're always hearing about the long hours that MPs work, let alone ministers, and I certainly know this feeling myself. He says: "If you really want parents to help children how about tackling the long working hours culture in this country? I'm a teacher, the amount of work I take home everyday severely limits the amount of help I can give my own children - and I'm willing to help. New Labour is diverting attention from the real problems with the parent child relationship: adults forced to overwork."

Smith: Yeah I had my first child when I was teaching and I had my second child when I was an MP. I know that being a working parent is tough and that people do have - parents do have a limited amount of time, a great amount of commitment and a limited amount of time.

I think if you look at the sort of tips that we're pushing forward in the magazine and in the guides they're not designed to take up large amount of time, they are designed to fit in with the sort of things that I think most of us do with our children anyway to turn them sometimes into just fun learning experiences.

But it's also the case that my ministerial colleague Margaret Hodge and within this department we are working very hard to look at the idea of work life balance, the fact that people do need to have support in order to spend more time with their families, we've already extended peoples' rights to parental leave, we've made it easier for workers who didn't previously have the right, for example, to take paid holiday to have that. Those things are, I think, a very important start in helping to make that balance between work and life. But we also recognise many working parents have a very tough time, are very busy. The sort of tips that we're putting forward, I think, are realistic given the sort of pressures that parents are facing.

Eason: David Powell is looking at it from another perspective in a way. He says: "Surely there's more to life than the national curriculum. I thought my role as Dad was to teach my children all that stuff not taught at school." And speaking from my own experience, we didn't have homework when I was at primary school, my eight year old complains about having homework, he says, "I do enough work at school."

Barbara Edwards says she thinks you're "wasting a lot of money like on this year's numeracy scheme, children are kept too busy at drill type learning, they need space and a chance to foster creativity."

And another example, Graham Culver says: "Wouldn't you agree that childhood should be about more than the acquisition of academic knowledge and we're in danger of sacrificing social development on the altar of academic achievement." Are we pressurising them too much at too young an age?

Smith: Let's start with the creativity point. I know that there are people who have been concerned about the emphasis that we've placed as a government on literacy and numeracy but I have to say I don't believe there's anything that stifles a child's creativity more than not being able to read, write or do number properly. And in fact what we've found as we've improved the sort of results that we're getting, particularly at primary level with literacy and numeracy, is that that's fed through to better results in other subjects as well.

So I think that we can actually promote creativity by ensuring that our children can read, write and do maths. But we also, within the national curriculum, have made - particularly with the revised national curriculum - in having slimmed down the programmes of study we are making it, I think, possible for teachers to use their professional expertise, to use the inspiration that many excellent teachers bring to the job, to provide a sort of whole range of learning opportunities for children.

And as a department we're actively supporting that, for example, through the extra investment we're putting into the music standards fund, through the emphasis we're putting on to PE and the extra money we're making available for sport and out of hours school activities. So I think within school we're dealing with that issue about ensuring our children have a well rounded education.

Yes, of course, I am not suggesting that parents spend all their time thinking about how can I support my child with the national curriculum, of course I'm not doing that - have a game of football, have a laugh, watch the tele - all those things that we do with our children but sometimes you might want to think about the fact that quite often those activities without children thinking they're having a lesson can actually be turned into learning experiences.

People say, quite rightly, that play is important for learning, informal activity is important for learning - those of us who've got an education background quite often understand how that is the case, some other people haven't been so fortunate to have that sort of background. What we're doing with the parents guide is providing the sort of tips that I think parents will welcome to make the sort of fun activities that can help their children to learn.

Eason: Debbie Davies wants your advice really. She says: "Your department has published a spelling list for Year 7 children and says that 'most pupils will know how to spell most words.' I've tested my son," she says, "on the first 60, and he could spell 11 of them. He's in Year 9 and doesn't enjoy writing, especially in front of his peer groups" and she gives some examples of his spelling which are pretty far out, I can tell you. It's a cry from the heart: "What should I do?"

Smith: Well on an individual level I think if she is concerned about the progress that her son is making in English and in spelling she needs to go and talk to his teachers about it. As I suggested earlier on children learn best when there's that relationship between schools and teachers. If it turns out that her son has some sort of particular learning difficulty then obviously she needs to investigate what the school can do and the school needs to be clear about what they can do to provide special support for him.

I think she also highlights a broader point and that is that we are concerned about the sort of progress that children make after they finish primary school into key stage 3 children from 11-14, particularly continuing the good work that I think now is happening in primary schools with the literacy and the numeracy strategies and that's why from this September we're actually piloting work in secondary schools to develop the good work in literacy and numeracy and in other areas that happened in primary schools, to address that as a problem across the system.

So that for a start if children haven't achieved the levels that would be expected of them by the time they get to Year 6 by the age of 11 there's actually continuing help for them as they go into secondary schools. And that overall there's perhaps more structure and more support for teachers and for learning at that very important stage so that we build on what's already happening in primary.

Eason: We've had an e-mail from Ghislaine Kenyon who says: "Surely the business of informing parents about the curriculum is most effectively carried out through the schools themselves during parents evenings and so on, what support will you offer schools who are best able to carry out these kind of learning partnerships?" And I wonder if there isn't perhaps a subtext in your new campaign which suggests that schools are failing to do this, most of them.

Smith: No that isn't what we're saying. In fact we're very keen that schools order the parents guides, that they distribute the magazines in their receptions and that they use the topic guides, for example, that we're also producing customised perhaps to what they're doing at a particular time, precisely in that way that Ghislaine suggests - using them in parents evenings, using them to help raise issues with parents.

So we think, actually, that the provision of this information for parents, sometimes directly to parents if they contact us on the orderline but often through schools because we're making it available for schools to order to use with their parents, will actually help parents and teachers to talk better together because I do think that's key - the relationship that's built up between any particular family and the child and that particular school.

This is a resource that schools can actually use in order to build that up and we're also, of course, supporting schools in other ways as well to help show - encourage parents into schools, to help sometimes parents who perhaps themselves have got concerns about their own reading or their own writing or their own number to actually use their child's first chance at learning as their second chance to learn so that you there build a relationship as well between the school and the parent aimed at supporting both the parent and the child's learning as well.

Eason: Can I pick up on what you were saying a little while ago about supporting children especially if they've got difficulties with their learning? Chris Gravell is concerned about those with special educational needs as defined and when they've got a statement issued recognising that, and that they get extra support in education. He says: "You're proposing to weaken the protection that can give by removing the requirement for quantification of the support so it makes it much harder to object to cuts in children's specialist teaching." He wants you to guarantee their rights.

Smith: What we're doing at the moment is we're carrying out a consultation on the code of practice which sets down what schools and authorities have to do in relation to making provision for special educational needs and I know that there has been some concern around proposals that we were making about simplifying some of the wording. We're listening to that as we go through the consultation but I have to assure people that we are not intending to change the legal basis for statements, we're not intending, in any way, to weaken the support that is available to children.

We're listening to the sorts of concerns that are coming out about the words that we're using and I'm going to be having meetings with groups who are concerned about that, to think about what we can do to reassure people that that isn't what we have in mind.

But I think it's also worth pointing out that we have also made significant extra amount of money available through the standards fund into schools to support teacher training for example in special educational needs, to support other initiatives that schools are doing. We've also greatly increased the amount of money going to the schools access initiative which makes schools more accessible both physically and in terms of the curriculum for children who've perhaps got particular special needs or disabilities.

So I think we've shown a commitment in the way in which we've been actually willing to do a whole range of things, to put more resources in, we're not intending to weaken the position for these children and I want to carry on talking to people who are concerned about that as we go through the consultation.

Eason: We hear a lot about more resources going in, you often hear from people who say they aren't getting there though. Val Pugsley says: "Instead of spending millions of PR and rubbishy ideas put the money where it counts - into the classroom. Reduce class sizes."

And Ian Andrews says, he wonders whether you want to make a difference in schools or not. "Talking to individual school governors it's apparent," he says, "that school budgets remain hopelessly under funded, walk around almost any state school and the themes are the same: not enough funds to maintain the buildings properly, can't afford enough books" and so on. There's still a widespread perception of that, anecdotally.

Smith: There's still work to be done in getting the money into schools, that is necessary. I think we made a very significant start both in terms of the overall increases in education spending this year and also, in particular, the grants that we put into schools - the direct money that we put into schools - that I know has been welcomed and used for a whole range of different activities within our schools. We have actually increased real spending per pupil by over 300 since 1997.

The spending review announcements just made by Gordon Brown actually would mean over the next three years a real terms increase of 370. We have put money through the new deal into improving 17,000 schools which I accept were in a poor state and there is more work that needs to be done there.

We have put money into reducing class sizes so that five, six and seven year olds, there were nearly half a million of them in 1997 in classes of over 30, this September we expect that there won't be anymore than 50,000. So that is 450,000 young children who are no longer in large class sizes.

I don't think that you have to set up this sort of false dichotomy between the - around about 6m that we're spending on this particular initiative to help parents the extra money which is also going into schools, it's all about raising standards and there are a whole range of things that you need to do to raise standards - you do have to get more money into schools, we accept that, and that's why we're increasing as well those direct grants next year significantly and guaranteeing them for three years. But you also need to make sure what's happening in the classroom is right and, we believe, you need to make sure that parents are engaged with their children's learning. So I don't seem them as setting one up against the other.

Eason: Now, you mention those direct grants and some people, as I'm sure you're aware, would like you to go a lot further. Malcolm Neslund is a school governor in Northumberland and a member of the Labour Party and he says: "Our main concern is the underfunding of education in Northumberland and when will this government correct the funding to LEA's so they all receive the same level to teach."

And on a more specific point Philip Bannister says: "Rural areas have particular needs and small schools are disadvantaged by current LEA funding streams." Now, you've promised a Green Paper, a consultation document, on the future of funding. It's overdue and still no sign of it yet. When are we going to get that?

Smith: It's coming very soon indeed and it's coming because I agree that the present method of distributing resources between local authorities isn't satisfactory. None of us here, in the Department for Education, want to defend the particular system of SSAs at the moment and I don't, particularly don't want to as a Worcestershire MP knowing that I've suffered in my particular area from that distribution.

That's why we're looking, in the Green Paper, at how we can actually make the system more transparent, how we can get it fairer between different parts of the country. And also, coming back to what we were talking about before, how we can make sure that schools are clear what amount of money they're going to get, local authorities are clear about the amount of money that they're going to get as well. That's coming in the very near future, I hope that people will be making a contribution to the debate that will come after that and it shows, I think, our commitment to sorting out that historic and pretty difficult problem as to how we distribute money between different parts of the country.

As far as rural schools are concerned I think it's right, actually, that smaller schools and rural schools quite often do have particular funding issues, quite often they don't have the economies of scale that larger schools have and that particularly happens in areas like support for the teachers in administration - that's why we've put, through the standards fund, 80m into the small schools support fund and into the administration support fund precisely to target on to small schools to give them that extra boost - that extra bit of support that will actually help to get them more on a level playing field with the larger schools that have the economies of scale.

Eason: Are you going to start on the basis of every pupil gets X amount and then you add on bits as necessary for specific needs, such as the rural schools - are you going to go for that simple, clear formula that everyone will understand?

Smith: Well David Blunkett has made it clear quite often recently that we favour something that is simple, that recognises an entitlement for children wherever they are but also then would need to have additions for children or schools which are operating perhaps in particularly deprived areas or schools where it's more expensive to appoint and retain staff. So life is not completely simple but we do believe it's simpler than is represented by the current system.

The Green Paper will be coming soon and as you've suggested education spending - because it's 40% of local government finance - will have a very important part of that and we're looking for that to be the start of, what I'm sure will be an ongoing and very strong debate about how we actually solve the problems. We're committed to doing it, it's not that easy, otherwise we would have done it already but we are committed to making it better than it is now.

Eason: Sheila Silver says that she's regularly asked to contribute to the cost of education by her son's primary schools - not the only one. "I've just been asked for 189 for a trip to Wales that, once you add travelling time, gives the children three days at an outdoor centre," she says. "I took my kids for two weeks in Portugal for less than that over Easter." And she had another concern from that: "What would happen if parents could not afford to pay or decided not to?" What happens to the children then?

Smith: Well I understand parents' concern about being asked to contribute to schools. On the particular issue of school trips: what schools, of course, can do is they can ask for voluntary contributions to school trips or to cover the cost, as is clearly happening in this particular case, I mean I don't know the details about what's being offered on this school trip and I wouldn't like therefore to pass judgement and I suspect it's something that probably needs to be discussed directly with the schools, perhaps with a parent governor if she's concerned about what's actually happening there.

I certainly don't think it's on for schools to be asking parents or putting pressure on parents to make large contributions to school funds and I hope I've spelt out that the extra money that we are putting and will be putting into schools means that I don't think schools should be turning to parents and saying you have to contribute.

But it is a fact of life that lots of parents want to contribute and I certainly wouldn't want to make it impossible for parents to contribute if they wanted to, I just think that we have to be very clear that we are putting, as a government, extra money into education, schools are free to ask for donations to raise money in the way that they always have done but that there should not be undue pressure put on parents in order to contribute.

Eason: Can I just raise the question of relationship with schools which sometimes goes wrong? Chris Milburn has sent us, it's a long e-mail, the gist of it is: at his children's school the headmaster was suspended, then dismissed, reinstated on appeal, half the staff resigned in protest and he then resigned "for the good of the school." Now we don't know the particulars and I wouldn't ask you to comment on it but his point is: "We still haven't been told," we as parents, "haven't been told why he was dismissed in the first place or why people resigned when he came back. What is needed," he says, "is a parents' charter, for want of a better term, that would ensure parents have those rights to that information." What do you think of that idea?

Smith: It is difficult.

Eason: Because those relationships sometimes do break down.

Smith: I actually think here we've got a very important role for the governing body and particularly for parent governors who are on governing bodies as representatives of parents to communicate with them about what's happening within school.

Eason: But it's the governors who are the "baddies" in this case.

Smith: Well allegedly. I think that perhaps in that case then it should be the responsibility of the local education authority to make sure that parents within that school understand what the situation - it is difficult to comment as you say on a case that I don't know the details about but either the governors or the local education authority I think should be making sure that parents understand what the situation is because it brings us back to that key relationship between parents, schools and teachers - which is going to be so key for their children's learning - and that needs communication on both sides.

Eason: OK our time's about up. Apologies to those who sent in e-mails - we haven't had time to get to them all. Perhaps we can do it again some other time but for now, Jacqui Smith, thank you very much.

Smith: Thank you very much and I think the very good range of questions proves my point that parents are very interested in their children's education.

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