Does ‘bring your parent to school day’ engage families?

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To improve its links with families, one Edinburgh school is inviting parents to spend a day in their children's shoes

Parental engagement: Should schools invite parents to experience their children's lesson for themselves?

Now sprint!” shouts PE teacher David Collard as 20-plus pairs of legs, each belonging to the parent of an S1 pupil, start pumping pedals up and down as fast as they can. The room is filled with the sound of purring spin-bike wheels, the cheesy beats of 1990s Eurodance group Vengaboys, and the occasional motivational cry from Collard.

“Look at the person next to you – are they going faster? Just put your head down and close your eyes – let’s go! Nobody slow down! If you don’t challenge yourself, you don’t change yourself!” he shouts.

This is “bring your parent to school day” at Boroughmuir High, Edinburgh – or, as mum Leena Patel quips after the spin class we undertake as part of PE, “bring your parent to school, take them home in a bag day”.

It is a Thursday and more than 55 S1 parents – around a fifth of this year’s 260-pupil-strong intake – are following the kind of timetable their children follow every day, experiencing six periods of lessons from modern languages, English and geography to science, home economics and drama. And, yes, PE (see sample timetable, opposite).

It is a no-holds-barred, full-on, this-is-precisely-what-happens-to-your-kids-when-they-come-here experience. It encompasses everything from making your way to classes (although we do have some lovely S1 guides to help us) to negotiating the school cafeteria, getting over your inhibitions in drama and baring all in the communal changing rooms.

By the end of the day, my group has taken part in a mime workshop and created objects using our bodies in “the configuration game” – I’ve been the tail in a five-person dragon and the caterpillar track on a 14-person tank. In science, we’ve managed to burn magnesium to create magnesium oxide without frying our retinas. In geography, we’ve talked about the myriad ways humans use rivers. In personal and social education, we’ve debated who it would be appropriate to befriend on Facebook.

By the end of the day, we have been pushed both physically and mentally. After our English lesson, based on the poem Vincent by film director Tim Burton (he of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands), one parent comments that she feels like she’s spent the period on a therapist’s couch (see box, page 19).

It feels a bit like we’ve been on an extreme team-building exercise dreamed up by a hip, progressive multimedia company but, really, all that has happened is we have spent a normal day at secondary school.

Boroughmuir High headteacher David Dempster says the most common feedback from parents after this experience – which they have been running here annually for five years and is the brainchild of depute head Juliet Presly – is that they are exhausted and have new-found empathy for their offspring. It is no longer a mystery – or a source of frustration – that their children come home from school and pour themselves on to the couch, he says.

Dempster questions why the only time many parents get to see their child’s school is when it is empty and there is no learning and teaching going on.

Certainly, secondary schools in particular have come in for criticism in the past for being “insular” and failing to engage with parents. Research carried out by the National Parent Forum of Scotland in 2017 found that 11 per cent of secondary parents reported they had not attended a one-to-one meeting with a teacher in the past year, compared with just 3 per cent of parents with a child at primary. And only 25 per cent of secondary parents had attended open sessions or afternoons in their child’s school compared with 61 per cent of primary parents.

Engaging parents meaningfully

Schools will, however, have to up their game given the new push from the government to get schools and families working together in a bid to capitalise on the research that says engaging effectively with parents improves pupils’ outcomes.

It published Learning Together – the national action plan to strengthen parental engagement – last year. In its wake, Eileen Prior, executive director of parents’ organisation Connect, warned it would “no longer be sufficient for schools to point to the parent council as proof of its parental engagement” and that “the emphasis has to move on to engaging meaningfully with the whole parent forum”.

Dempster himself argues that it is easier for teachers to engage with parents when children are in primary – not least because the pupils are happier for their parents to be in school. He does not think that “bring your parent to school” would work with pupils in S2, just one year older than those whose families are in the school today.

Whatever the age of the pupils, Dempster acknowledges that parental engagement is all too often about the sharing of pieces of paper or links to websites.

That has a place, he says, but not at the expense of giving parents the opportunity to see their child’s school in action.

The experience today gives parents an insight into how teaching and learning happens in modern schools, says Dempster. And although it takes a bit of organising – at this point he acknowledges the hard work of Presly – it is “not rocket science”, given that making up timetables and delivering classes is bread and butter for schools.

Dempster tells parents when they arrive that the school is “not putting on a show” and that this is “how we are teaching your sons and daughters”.

One big difference parents tend to note since they were at school, he says, is how “active and participative” learning is now. Mark Dorrian, whose daughter, Grace, is in S1, enthuses about the number of activities that take place in a single lesson, where you can be watching something on the smartboard, then discussing it and writing about it. “When I was at school it was ‘open page 14 of the textbook’ and you read,” he says.

Martin Forde, an IT engineer whose son Dylan has just joined Boroughmuir, is impressed by the use of smartboards to seamlessly bring a visual dimension into lessons. In English, for instance, parents are shown a six-minute stop-motion animation of a poem.

Some parents are struck not only by how things are being taught but by what is being taught these days. Fiona Parker points out that many subjects open to her son Christopher did not exist when she was at school: business, computing, personal and social education. “The whole thing is better – the building, the teachers, the classrooms. Everything is better,” she says.

Ken Macnamara, dad to Eve, is “really surprised by how much positive energy there is. I remember school as teenagers sulking around the place. The teachers are full of energy, too. There is quite a buzz”.

‘Honest light’

But not all the parents have even a dated yardstick by which to measure the school, with no experience of the Scottish education system to draw on. Boroughmuir High is in the centre Edinburgh which, like most European capitals, is something of a melting pot. I meet a dad who was educated in South Africa and mums whose secondary schools were in Canada, Romania and France.

Gaelle Batey is French and mum to S1 pupil Elena. Batey says her own schooling in France was very traditional, with a strong focus on the academic subjects. There was a lot of homework, passive learning and testing.

“You always knew where you were in the class – if you were in the middle or if you were acing it or not,” she says.

For her, in this strange land where pupils don’t seem to know where they rank in class, it is reassuring to experience a taste of Scottish schooling.

But what do the S1s think? One boy tells me in the lunch queue that the reaction among his peers has been “mixed”: “Some people are like, ‘Oh no, I’m so embarrassed’. Lots of people are really nervous.”

However, the S1s who want to avoid their parents can easily do so; some of the parents do comment that they haven’t seen their children all day. Other pupils, though, are happier to be seen with their mum or dad.

I frequently see Louise Mcleod with her son Caleb – he even reminds her to get a selfie with one of the teachers when she forgets. (Teachers acquire celebrity status at “bring your parent to school day”, it turns out.)

Mcleod says she has enjoyed seeing the school in “such an honest light” and getting to interact with the teachers. Caleb was keen for his mum, a nurse manager, to “experience the life of a pupil again” and “see what we do in the school day”.

S1 pupil Poppy – who finds me running late after drama and makes sure I’m safely deposited in geography – wants her mum to understand that when she gets home from school and lies on the sofa, she is “actually dead” and “not just faking it”.

Another S1 student I speak to says he wants his parents to appreciate “that there’s tonnes of stairs and it gets really tiring”.

This comment makes me smile but then we go from PE on the lower ground floor to PSE on the second floor for final period, and all I can think as my feet pound up flight after flight is “Yep, I hear you”.

And that’s the point. It’s easy to dismiss worries about communal changing rooms, or taking part in drama. But when you have to strip down to your bra and pants in a room full of strangers or mime walking through a swamp for an audience, it really hammers home that these experiences – while undoubtedly leading to something worthwhile, such as getting some exercise – can be uncomfortable.

The other thing you are reminded of loudly and clearly is the sheer variety and wealth of experiences school children are exposed to every day. Every lesson we go to, we are met by teachers who are enthusiastic and funny, and not just expert in their subjects but clearly passionate about them.

If they are reluctant recruits to this innovative scheme, they certainly don’t show it. Geography teacher Shiv Das says the parents’ day is “100 per cent worth doing” given the “positive correlation between parental engagement and higher attainment”.

Drama teacher David Graham says he wants parents to come away understanding what his subject is all about. Boroughmuir pupils get a period a week of drama in S1 and S2, and can continue to take the subject as they progress through school. But parents often don’t fully understand why their children do drama, or what they do when they are there, he says.

“Going to science makes sense, going to music, maths and history makes sense,” says Graham. “Drama is one of these things where it is not as obvious why we are doing it.”

After each activity, Graham leads brief discussions with the parents about what they have been learning.

They conclude that drama is not just good for building confidence but is also for the imagination, overcoming inhibitions, teamwork, negotiating skills and more.

As Presly, who came up with the idea of a parents’ day, puts it: it’s one thing to talk about what is going on in school but quite another to “feel it, breathe it, experience it”.

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 1 November 2019 issue under the headline “How was school today, Mum?”