The motivation for each school is always subtly different. Some have an action from an Ofsted visit, arising out of the parental questionnaire, others have a new leadership team and want to establish a new way forward that is distinct and complementary. Others have been doing it for years and want some recognition that they are doing it well.
The common feature within all these schools though, is the realisation that communication is the key element of a successful journey. To be successful, this communication needs to be two way, whereas, in reality, it is often information from the school, being passed to the parents.
There is a need to explore all aspects of communication, from the “front of house” element, the smile on entry and early attention, to the internal and external formats to ensure that everyone knows what they need to know in a timeframe that allows the information to be useful and ensures as full a participation as possible.
“Front of house” is very important. If a parent feels able to approach the school, via the office and knows that “agreements” made will be carried through, they can go away happy, knowing that their child is safe and, if followed up with a reassuring call, the rest of the day is calm. A concerned parent can turn into a disgruntled parent quite quickly, with consequences within the home that might lead to negativity from children.
“Parent Voice” is a key aspect, in that, if parents feel that they have a partner voice, where they are enabled to be participants in discussion, they feel valued as part of the journey. Some schools have alternative arrangements, such as parent forum or parent council, but, in my experience, these can become small, almost cliques, which over time excludes the larger group of parents, especially as they can be self-selecting in the first place. Many schools rely on the narrower vies, so then come across difficulties at the margins.
It is very important to have mechanisms by which general views are sought. This can be through questionnaires, but, in practice, especially if they are once a year, these are often large documents, which results in a small, unrepresentative response. Single questions (or small number, with a clear focus) can be a more viable methodology, especially if the school is seeking evidence on a specific topic. Some schools have adopted a post-it approach, whereby after an event a board is put at the exit, with two colours of post-it, one for WWW, another for EBI, of similar wording. The commentary provides a response that allows reflection on the outcomes of the event and food for thought for changes before another.
In asking questions, it is a good idea to feed back to the audience. Most of the schools with which I worked were happy with a “You said, we thought, we did” approach within either their website, newsletter or on a notice board, depending on the best approach for their parents. This loop demonstrates to the parents the value of involvement. They are encouraged to take an active part, in all aspects of school life.
The positivity of the involved parents improves the “word of mouth” aspects of relationships, so that they become the ambassadors for the school in their catchment, offering positive messages and encouragement to parents who might be feeling negativity.
The bottom line is that (the vast majority of) parents want to feel that they have a continuing role to play in their child’s school life. By making it easier for them to interact, in a variety of ways, the school demonstrates that they are welcome as partners. This positive partnership rubs off on the children, as it is clear that home and school work together. It is not a one-way street, with either the school or the parent as the dominant partner.
In many ways, the simplicity of this is to find appropriate ways to engage fully with parents.
- Schools need to know the children and their parents if the relationships are to be maintained.
- Where the school intake is very widely spread, some schools have taken parents evenings to a venue that better suited the parents, especially if they are reticent to step into a school building, as they had a poor experience.
- Some schools have “parent outreach” staff members, either teachers or support staff, who do home visits as necessary, or are the faces when a parent needs to come in and talk, with a role to follow through with whichever staff member is needed.
- Many schools send home an outline of the half term or the term ahead, with topics being encountered and suggesting ways in which the parents can help at home, by highlighting the probable home activities.
- Some schools ensure translation of written information or have essential language staff available to engage the parents during discussion.
- One school, knowing that they had a large population from a specific country, went to their meeting venue, spoke with the acknowledged leaders, used the venue for discussions and brought the leader(s) into the Governing body, ensuring visible representation.
- Teacher and school letters are often close typed, and written in ways that require a good level of education to understand the nuances. To know the parents and to make sure that newsletters are discussed in a heritage language, or with parents known to have reading issues, can be the difference between parental comfort and discomfort, enabling the children to participate fully in school life.
Openness, honesty and excellent communication, in a range of formats, can support and maintain the positive partnership.