There’s a meme doing the rounds at the moment called ‘A lot has changed in 50 years’ comparing the response of parents from decades ago to that of today’s parents to a call from school about their child’s misbehaviour. In the meme, the parents of the past automatically support the school in its attempts to keep the child on the right track, but the parents of today take a different, less supportive view. Whether there is truth in this or not, the need to get parents on board, and fully supportive of their child’s education, is crucial.
Parents can make a tremendous difference to their child’s experience of school. Knowing and talking about what their child is learning, supporting them by reading together, testing spellings, learning times tables and so on contribute effectively to the bigger picture of a child’s education. But there are obvious blocks that need to be overcome. For example, for parents whose own experience of school was challenging, or seemingly irrelevant, school can pose an element of threat. Reluctance to engage fully with their child’s education can be an understandable by-product of such feelings.
Chris Dyson, head of Parklands Primary School in one of the most deprived areas of Leeds, focused specifically on building relationships with the parents and carers of children in his school when he first joined it. “We have an open door policy so parents know they can come in any time to discuss concerns,” he explains. “This helps us to nip issues in the bud. We also invite parents in for one day a term and they are invited to all assemblies. We regularly get 140 parents in to our “best seats in the house” on a Friday – everyone is welcome!”
Being open, demonstrating a willingness to talk, collaborate and reach beneficial solutions for the families served by the school gets results. Chris continues: “When I first came to this school there had been 150 exclusions in a year, so the first thing we needed to do was to get a behaviour policy in place that everyone could sign up to. If you can get parents on-side you are half way there. So we shared our plans with them, invited feedback and created a policy that we were all happy with. We also work hard at signposting for parents so that they know where they can access help.”
This approach to nurturing parents, as well as children, has demystified school processes and helped parents to feel that they are a strong link in the school’s community. As Chris explains, “We have run courses for parents and aim to show that the school is for the whole community. Opening up the school just before Christmas is really popular. Families come for Christmas dinner and have a lot of fun. It makes the school welcoming and a place where children and parents are happy. The main concern of parents at the school is whether their child is happy. We have a high percentage of illiterate parents so some of our year 5 and 6 children read and write better than their parents. So we provide for children who may not have a quiet space at home and work with parents to make sure they can access any support they need.”
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Great schools will naturally explore ways of working with all the people in their communities to ensure that all may thrive, but there are some general themes that arise time and again that seem to work well:
- Open door – parents need to know what channels of communication are open to them. If schools are to work in partnership with parents for the good of children at all times, communication needs to flow freely.
- Clear communication – what messages do we need to convey and how will we achieve that? There is no “one size fits all” here. Knowing and reaching the audience is key and this is about language and tone as much as it is about content. Some schools in the US have introduced “academic workshops” to replace teacher/parent conferences, in which teachers inform parents about the skills and knowledge children will need in order to move on in their learning.
- Working with - there are many opportunities for schools to break down any real or imagined barriers between home and school. Parent representation on governing bodies and PTAs is positive and helps to build community. Parent forums also offer the chance for parents to engage with the school. This in turn can nurture the awareness among parents that schools are doing their best for the children in their care, and if there is a need for change, there is a path ahead that may be more collaborative. This may be obvious, but it seems that there can be a gap between the perceptions that schools have and that parents have of how well that relationship is functioning.
- Shared decision making – while much of what happens in a school will be decided without the voice of parents, there will be some elements of the work of a school that parents can have a say on and influence. Make the most of those opportunities.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.