Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Talk to the hand

A person holding their hand in front of the camera

ASCL member David Peck outlines the proposed changes to parents' rights in the educational bill. But, he says, more effort and support is needed for reaching those parents who just don't want to know.

Parents and carers are, of course, pivotal to the success of young people and there is unequivocal evidence that parental influence far outweighs that of teachers.

Schools know this very well and have built up a range of techniques for enlisting parents and exploiting 'parent power' in the struggle to raise standards.

There are undoubtedly schools where parents are queuing up to do all they can for the cause, but for most schools engaging parents is plain hard work.

Yet to read the outpourings of education secretaries and ministers in recent years, one

could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that all parents come armed with dossiers of comparative school data and a burning desire to get involved with levering up standards in their local schools.

We know that 'real parents' are as different from this 'dossier parent' stereotype as are 'real students' from the Beano's Cuthbert Cringeworthy.

Real parents cover the whole range of descriptions along several spectrums: from supportive to downright obstructive, from demanding to uncaring, and from knowledgeable to utterly misinformed.

Colleagues with sufficient experience to be ASCL members will easily recall parents who fit all of these descriptions and will possibly twitch at some of the memories.

Furthermore, it is never that simple since parents have a place somewhere on all of these continuums (and several more besides).

Bearing in mind that parents are such a diverse group, it is clear that there is no universal solution and that the work of engaging parents requires relentless effort, with the finishing line always on the horizon.

The task of engaging parents will remain both undeniably challenging and undoubtedly fruitful. However, with 'parent power' assuming a new significance, we are on the verge of an era in which the term 'engaging parents' is set to take on a different meaning.

New dawn for parents

At ASCL's 2005 conference in Brighton, Ruth Kelly told us that schools would have to listen more to the opinions of parents.

In 2006, we may no longer have Ruth Kelly but we do have an education bill and a raft of changes which give parents, real or otherwise, a range of routes through which they can express those opinions and expect to have them acted upon.

The controversial issue of trust schools, in which there is apparently little interest on the ground, has grabbed all the media attention whilst the 'parent power' measures, which will affect all schools, have so far slipped through relatively unnoticed.

If the bill goes through in its current form, it signals a change or at least a desire for change from the government in the relationship between parents and schools. Here are the 'top ten' drivers we can expect, subject to amendments in the bill of course.

  1. Ofsted inspections triggered by parental complaints. This new category of inspection surely bears the hallmark of an afterthought. Ofsted and HMI colleagues are at present unable to predict the level of complaints, the 'tipping point' of complaints which will trigger an inspection, the resources such inspections will require nor the impact of these on 'regular' inspections and/or the size of the inspection workforce. We do know that the implementation date was September.

  2. Greater involvement of parents, often through parent champions, in schools causing concern; requirements for more and clearer information about local schools, how to get involved and how to 'lever change', with independent advisers to help with the process.

  3. Local managing inspector (LMI) involvement where local intelligence is needed or a parents' meeting is required.

  4. Parents able to set up new schools with a dedicated capital pot.

  5. Parents' right to form parent councils.

  6. Duty on governing bodies to have regard to views of parents.

  7. An active campaign to capture and disseminate excellent practice.

  8. Forward-looking information to be provided to provoke a more regular, termly dialogue with parents; three progress reports per year to parents.

  9. Advice to parents on how to help with their child's learning at school.

  10. Requirement for better home-school agreements will be required.

Certainly many of us would agree that there are some measures here which could strengthen the pupil, parent, teacher partnership and thereby help students to do better.

Any measure which results in parents being better equipped to support their children and having a stronger supportive relationship with teachers can only be beneficial.

On the other hand the subliminal message, at least in the first six of these, is surely that parents would love to be more heavily and more regularly involved in schools, if only we professionals didn't stand in their way.

Parents do not need a battering ram to break through an open door, especially when that door has 'welcome' signs and when there are inducements to encourage them to cross the threshold.

Parents and schools have a common interest in the outcomes for young people and this interest is best served by a collaborative rather than an adversarial approach.

Reaching the hard to reach

The impact of these measures remains to be seen, particularly those with a 'dossier parent' focus. However, if there is to be a real impact, it is especially important to consider those who are truly hard to reach.

We should all be much wealthier if we had the proverbial 'pound for every time' we have heard a colleague say "I didn't see the parents I really wanted to see".

These are often the families in the vicious circle of the underperforming child the apparent lack of interest confirms to the child that school is unimportant and the parents only contact with school is negative.

So who are the 'hard to reach' parents? The list will differ from school to school but the following list, while not exhaustive, will strike a chord for many colleagues. It includes those who:

  • had a bad experience of school

  • have no experience of school

  • are only contacted with bad news

  • support their children in all circumstances

  • think school is free child care

  • feel society is against them

  • are carers for sick, elderly or disabled family members

  • are illiterate

  • speak little or no English

  • are single mothers with young children

  • are without transport

  • do not have a land line and change mobile phone numbers frequently

Creating a list like this can lead to a deeper understanding of the issues and to more effective, targeted strategies for engaging parents.

Cosmetic improvements to parents evenings, publicity materials or reception areas are not going to break down the barriers these parents face and, of course, many parents face multiple barriers.

For some parents, it is a daily challenge just to feed and clothe their children and to keep them from harm.

Those parents who are familiar with rejection, racism, unemployment, addiction, crime and so on, will not have their own belonging and self-esteem needs realised so will be unlikely to support their children at a cognitive level.

We in education need to recognise the challenges we face in becoming part of the solution for such families, rather than another burden.

Of course schools cannot solve these diverse problems alone but if through extended school partnerships and working with colleagues in other services to address the Every Child Matters agenda parents come to associate a visit to school with benefits for the whole family, a highly significant barrier will have been removed.

As we strive to improve outcomes for young people through ever more personalised learning, we need a simultaneous focus on personalised parental engagement.

Otherwise, without parents on board, the teacher's voice will continue to be disregarded by some students as "they would say that" and transforming education will not affect those in greatest need.

David Peck is Head of Moseley School A Language College, near Birmingham, an 11-18 comprehensive school.

Engaging hard to reach parents

For those struggling to broaden parental involvement, the following checklist may help.

  • Has the school identified the groups of parents it most wants or needs to reach? Are there clear reasons for wanting to strengthen the links with these families? Is it clear what the school wants to achieve?

  • Have possible barriers for these parents been identified, such as transportation or accessibility of information?

  • Is the school building welcoming and accessible for all parents?

  • Are staff friendly, approachable and non-judgemental of all parents? Is this an issue for staff training? Is an audit needed of staff customer care skills?

  • Does the school invite all parents to use their skills to support the school, for example through volunteer activities?

Getting parents through the door

Some possible ideas for encouraging parental engagement include the following:

  • When sending invitations, include photographs of staff if parents have not already met them.

  • For parents who do not feel comfortable coming into school, follow up invitations with a telephone call or text message.

  • Be careful about the wording of invitations. Singling out parents can cause anxiety and suggest a hidden agenda.

  • Provide video tapes or DVDs of the school and school activities for parents who have not yet visited or are unable to do so.

  • Try experimenting with initiatives that offer parents opportunities to help their children. Care and welfare issues are more likely to generate interest from parents who are not confident about academics.

  • For some events try using other, more neutral, venues instead of school premises.

  • Offer transport where there is an obvious and genuine need.

  • Provide childcare or activities for young children.

  • Provide refreshments.

  • Vary the timing of meetings so that those who work are able to come without taking time off.

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