Communicating with parents more effectively

Andy Hargreaves

Communicating more effectively with parents, is one essential way in which we must widen our approach to educational change, writes Andy Hargreaves.

But what does it mean to deepen our approach to community relationships in ways that also acknowledge their emotional character?

There are four forms of relationship between parents and schools: market-based, managerial, personal and cultural.

* Market-based relationships treat parents as clients and consumers who can send their children to the schools of their choice. The connection here is a contractual one which tends to individualise and fracture social relationships between schools and communities. Advocates of school choice tend to be articulate, white, well-organised and middle class. They exert a disproportionate influence on the direction of school change in ways that connect to the interests and experiences of their community, but marginalise the experiences and interests of less fortunate ones.

* Managerial relationships presume that schools are rational organisations within a decentralised system. In its establishment of parent councils and school development planning, the managerial approach is better at creating committees than at building communities. It grants untoward influence to atypical parents, diverts teachers' and principals' energies to procedural accountability more than to personal and emotional responsiveness, and has as yet shown no demonstrable benefits for student outcomes.

* Personal relationships between teachers and parents, by contrast, concentrate on the most important interest that parents have in school; the achievement and well-being of their own children. Few parents wait anxiously for the new school development plan to arrive in the mail. But they are extremely keen to see reports about their own individual children. Yet the quality of information passed between school and home is often extremely poor.

Deeper parent-teacher relationships require the principles of openness, trust, risk-taking and collaboration that are commonly advocated for collegial relationships among teachers.

* Cultural relationships are founded on principles of openness and collaboration developed collectively with groups of parents and others in the community as a whole. Schools often decide upon their professional response first, then take a managerial approach to informing their community. Yet, when schools involve communities with them before the professional response has been decided, assistance, support and understanding are much more likely.

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