How can we involve parents in their children's schools? In two Birmingham schools, Brookfields primary and Aston Manor secondary school, action teams of parent-governors and school staff injected fresh enthusiasm into the school development plan.
The action teams are the key. They are used in American studies to empower parents to evaluate and improve their own involvement. In the Birmingham project, called Parents as Partners and run by the school of education at the city's university, the teams met every two weeks - at a time to suit parents. In the primary school, for example, meetings were held so parents could collect their children at the end of the school day.
From the beginning, a realistic timetable was negotiated, with the time commitment clearly agreed. All meetings were convened by the researcher and conducted informally, so that parents were not dominated by the professionals.
In both schools, newly elected parent-governors were finding their feet but learning fast. Their enthusiasm was striking. "I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to be heard," said one. "I wanted good for my child as well as any other child."
They were not afraid to express their views. "I don't say anything stupid, or I try not to, I just look at it from the parents' point of viewI" They recognised the difficulties in getting parents more involved with the school but shared the view that parents need strong guidanc. "I hope parents don't just come to us with bad things. I hope they come to us for the good as well, with ideas and suggestions of how to get people involved in school."
Encouraging parents to voice their views required an understanding of local families. Marlene Oates, chair of governors, at Brookfields. recognised that for some families, alienated from the education system, the school is seen as a "bastion of authority and privilege" which presents a barrier to good relations.
She wanted to create an environment where parents "feel proud of the school, feel that they are part of what happens and can help shape the future". Ms Oates, together with her co-governor Sue Bashford, acted as "hosts" to parent helpers in schools In meetings, the parent-governors did not lack confidence and were very willing to follow up ideas. One said, "I can sort of test the ground. I know how parents feel so I can say, well, this is how they feel about that, or nobody knows about that, or nobody's interested in that. It's hard to get parents involved but I'm there all the time trying."
The project made most progress with staff who were enthusiastic and energetically committed to working with parent-governors and who had the authority to take initiatives forward. Staff had to be prepared to encourage parents to contribute and respond to constructive criticism and positive ideas.
Criticism by parents of staff input into, for example, homework planners had to be followed up, as did the request for termly information sheets and reminders. In the secondary school, the home-school liaison teacher was helpful. He had good relations with families and expertise in dealing with parents.
Parents were asked to develop no more than three initiatives. Some were new practices for involvement (such as a programme of community social events), some were a revamping of previous practice(a parent-helper scheme) and some were developments of an existing practice (relaunching the homework planner).
These immediate developments were seen as part of a broader strategy. In the primary school, the summer fair was only the first of a programme of social events for the local community as well as the families of pupils.
Unleashing the parents' voice is risky if it creates expectations which cannot be met. But, with the team approach, a constructive partnership can be developed. It takes time and many small steps.
As Jo Williams, head at Brookfields, explained; "We still only have small numbers of parents in school but there has been a massive improvement. We have created expectations and they are now asking us about the next step."
Jane Martin is a research felllow at the University of Birmingham The Parents as Partners Project was carried out by the school of education, University of Birmingham. It was funded by the Birmingham Newtown and Ladywood Task Force. For further details, contact Liz Potts at the School of Education, The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT