I dreamed I stood in a studio and watched two sculptors there,
The clay they used was a young child’s mind and they fashioned it with care.
One was a teacher: the tools she used were books and music and art;
One was a parent with a guiding hand and gentle loving heart.
And when at last their work was done, they were proud of what they had wrought.
For the things they had worked into the child could never be sold or bought!
And each agreed she would have failed if she had worked alone.
For behind the parent stood the school and behind the teacher the home!
It’s probably a truism to state that a parent’s experience of school is likely to colour their view of education. I heard this forty years ago as a probationary teacher, when a 16 year old told me that he wasn’t bothered as he’d be working with his brother as a builder’s mate. His parents did not turn up for parent’s evenings, quoting the same lines. After a transfer to Primary, I was faced with a concerned parent whose child was a little difficult at home. He wanted advice from an expert. As a young, recently married and childless teacher, I felt ill equipped for such questions, but, in the best tradition of the all-knowing, I offered advice. Fortunately it worked, but, on becoming a parent, I am sure that my approach to giving advice changed from inside knowledge, or at least empathy.
For the past seven years, I have done a variety of freelance consultancy activities, including assessments for Leading Parent Partnership Award and Inclusion Quality Mark. The first scheme is firmly focused on parents and their links with schools, while the IQM scheme has parents and the Community as major elements. Conversations with schools and with parents suggest that there is possibly still a residual problem in this regard, with parents still being described as “hard to reach” by schools and some parents describing school as hard to engage.
There is a need to reduce the number of hard to reach families; making school accessible is one area which can be reviewed. Where schools demonstrated the following, parents expressed their ease of accessing the school if there was an issue.
What can schools do to consider the needs of parents?
Make the school welcoming. A simple starting point perhaps, but, has your school ever audited the parent view of the welcome at the reception? Are they met with a smile and a recognition that they are there? Schools tend to assume that they are welcoming.
Ask the parents; set up a postcard system with two simple questions;
- Does our reception make you feel welcome?
- How can we improve it?
Go out to them. One school with which I worked had a very large Somali population which was not, as a general rule, participating in school life. The school made contact with one of the community leaders and went to meet the group at one of their meetings. The leaders were invited into the school; one became a Governor and gave a positive message to the community. They came in numbers after that.
A Special School, with a diverse and widely spaced intake found parent’s evening relatively unattended. Questioning the parents, it became clear that the issue was transport in the evenings as well as looking out for their disabled children. The school organised satellite meetings at several places such as community halls and libraries. As a result, meetings were facilitated and parent-school relations enhanced.
Induction is a well-articulated system. There is a need to ensure that sufficient thought is given to this. First impressions count. This can be a case of well written paperwork, translated if needed into a heritage language or meetings that are timed to suit parents as well as teachers. If parents are asked what they want to know, then written materials can be created to ensure that this information is shared, as well as the essential school information.
Information sharing is straight forward. All school publications should be aware of the needs of the parent audience. Newsletters and aspects of websites can be written in ways which might exclude a number of parents, especially if they are jargon-filled. Policies, which have to be available to parents can be in inaccessible language.
A parent needing to contact the school should find this easy in any form needed; text, phone call, letter, face to face. Early acknowledgement and an understanding that the concern is receiving attention can defuse a situation.
Are parents aware of what their children are studying this year? How hard would it be to summarise and send out? That way they can be involved.
Do reports give parents information to support learning?
Parents and children explore learning together. Where schools create opportunities for parent and their children to do activities together, there is an articulation of strengthened bonds and understanding of each other, which has a positive impact on learning in class. Examples from practice include:- Lads and Dads days, community art activities, allotmenting, choirs and drama, Family learning activities, especially maths and English. It is the learning together that is valued as it gives new insights to both parent and child. An example of schools as low level parenting coaches?
Parent Voice. There are many ways in which schools seek to engage with parents. Who organises it and for what purpose can determine the success or otherwise of the venture. Even the name of the group can cause an issue, if some parents feel excluded. The notion of Parent Voice has been successfully used in a range of schools, particularly if the premise is that the school wants to hear what parents think. Medina College on the Isle of Wight has a very active Parent Voice tab and a Facebook link on their website. Their openness allowed a broad range of parents to be involved, developing a more supportive culture.
Single question questionnaire. Many schools still send a newsletter, most have an active, accessible website. Instead of sending out an A4 sheet of 20 questions once a year, why not ask one (or at most three related questions) on each newsletter/fortnight? Or maybe a post it exit poll after parent’s evening, based on WWW and EBI.
Parents could be alerted to the question through a text service.
You would not be overloading your audience, might get a better response and your data analysis could be more focused, with the potential to respond within the next newsletter, demonstrating quickly that views have been considered.
Schools need parent support, for a wide range of needs that are ancillary to learning. Both want the same outcomes- success for the child.