Having recently done the rounds of primary schools for my son who has just started in reception, one thing that struck me was the immense variety in headship styles. Spending a short time in a handful of schools, and being there as a parent rather than for work, it felt like I was seeing the full range. Some heads welcoming, others wary. Some seeking partnerships, others establishing authority. It was fascinating to watch.
However, it wasn’t until sitting in a meeting of prospective parents being addressed by the school’s head that the full weight of the importance of building the best relationships you possibly can with parents, right from the very beginning of a child’s school career, struck me. It must be paramount.
What really works best in building this relationship from a parent’s perspective before the start of term has even begun? Being told you are partners in your child’s education? Being told that your input is valued and valuable? Being told to let the school get on with it? Being told that your child may tell stories about what happens in school? Evidently this varies from parent to parent. Some will thrive on the boot camp style while others will need to feel a sense of involvement, and herein lies the problem. Heads must navigate that tricky path between laying down their expectations in no uncertain terms and embracing the fact that children need a unified network around them in order to thrive. Force the issue too far in one direction or another and you risk alienating the very people you need on side.
For Simon Feasey, ex-headteacher and current EdD student researching relational leadership and community capacity building, it is primarily a matter of investing in time to build the kind of relationships we need for children to reach their potential. And this, he says, rests on an understanding of how power works in organisations. “I believe that schools need to give time to developing a better understanding of how power works through organisations and relationships. Mark Warren’s definition of relational power is helpful here: ‘If unilateral power emphasises power “over”, relational power emphasises power “with” others, or building the power to accomplish common aims’. This goes hand in hand with the need for a very deep understanding of context and families in each unique community. Surveys are not stories. It all starts with listening and conversations, and putting the work in to understand personal narratives and perspectives.”
If we want to work effectively with parents, relational power – power with – must surely be the goal. The risks associated with “power over”, for example, creating animosity in parents (a glance at social media is testament to fact that this does happen, and parents will talk about it regardless of whether or not they are warned not to mention the school on social media) are too great. When parents buy in to what we do in schools, we have their support, and with that, we have a team.
Chris Dyson, head of Parklands Primary School in Leeds agrees. “Working with and listening to parents is essential to a successful school. Parents feel anxious and want answers yesterday to concerns. I have an open door policy; I let them get it off their chest - this puts them at ease straight away. I promise to look into it as 99.9% of the time I don't know the issue and I get back to them later in the same day.”
Social media issues are dealt with tactfully, too. “Any Facebook issues that are brought to my attention; I ring them up and ask for posts to be deleted. An open door policy also applies to assemblies. Four years ago I had one man and his dog attend; NOW I have around a 100 at my #FunDayFriday #BestSeatsInTheHouse assembly. I text x15 Stars of the Week parents; x15 Writers of the Week (sponsored by The Literacy Shed); x12 Class XTables Champions (sponsored by TT Rockstars); x15 Spellers of the Week and x9 Best Seats in The House winners. Thus inviting the parents in.”
This approach seems to be winning all round. As Chris explains, “Engaging with the parents sees the parents loving the school; the kids love the notion that the parents love school and thus they love it even more. Seeing the parents and children love school means the teachers have above expected behaviour and thus can take risks in lessons to get the very best out of the children.”
Such an approach can work equally well regardless of the age and stage of the children. There are no losers. Parents’ evenings are part of the mix too: “Engaging on Parents’ Evening is also essential to a successful school in challenging areas. We have a 98% turn out; how and why? Well we put on FREE food so the families can eat their tea together; we put a bouncy castle in the hall so the children want their parents to attend, and it gives me the perfect opportunity to allow my School Council to do Parent and Children Questionnaires. Imagine having a delicious 2 course meal, and then going on the bouncy castle, and then being asked to give your views on a school. Another win.”
The way in which schools engage with parents needs to be under constant review. Asking pertinent questions can help, such as “is what we are currently doing working sufficiently for us?” “Could we do better at encouraging this invaluable relationship?” If we don’t have the parents on board, we don’t have the children. We have to get this relationship right. If we don’t, everyone suffers.
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.