Over the past year, we have seen parents and teachers across the country standing shoulder to shoulder, campaigning for more funding for our schools as in the Fair Funding for All Schools campaign, and challenging unfair practices, such as St Olave’s Grammar School in south-east London preventing students continuing A levels for failing to make enough progress.
Although these interventions have been welcomed by the education sector, many teachers and headteachers whom I have spoken to still have reservations about formalising "parent voice" in their own school. Sometimes I’ve actually seen them shudder at the thought.
Similarly, some parents have told me that they don’t want to raise issues with the headteacher because they don’t want to rock the boat, fearing that their child may be disadvantaged if they do. This doesn’t seem to be a very healthy situation.
So what do we mean by "parent voice"? Put simply, this is about recognising matters at school that parents have a genuine stake in and providing the means for the whole range of voices to be heard before action is taken. This can include consultation exercises, surveys and focus groups, through to informal and formal parent voice groups, such parent forums or parent councils.
The benefits of parent voice
Rather than being something to fear, scheduling opportunities for mums, dads and carers to give feedback can be hugely positive, leading to more parental support for the school and children’s learning. Although it may be a leap of faith for some headteachers, providing a way for parents to have a say in "peace time" can lead to fewer formal complaints and ease tensions, while also generating ideas, solutions and partnerships that lessen rather than add to the load.
So why not bite the bullet and make this happen next term? To kick this off you can:
- Ask a governor or senior leadership team member to be a visible champion for involving parents in your school.
- Survey your parents to ask them what five things they would most like to be consulted on. This can be done in many ways, including through email and more informally at school events or open days.
- Ask parents who are already engaged in school life, such as PTA committee members, to help you involve all parents and make sure that your survey is truly representative.
- Feedback the results of your survey and inform parents how and when you are going to involve them moving forward. Tackle one of the most popular suggestions straight away to show parents that you are listening, and visibly celebrate your wins as a school community.
- Build trust and openness by setting up a parent or stakeholder council where participants represent different parts of your school community, operate within a framework of ground rules and can be consulted by the senior leadership team, governors and trustees.
A persistent concern is that a single "parent voice" is somewhat unobtainable. School leaders worry about what can be done if you meet with conflicting views. Resolving these conflicts democratically does require skill (and perhaps a little training) but it can be done if you commit to great communication and collaboration with a representative cross-section of parents over a sustained period – and, of course, always keep what’s best for the children centre stage.
Michelle Doyle Wildman is acting chief executive of PTA UK