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Engagement begins at home

Be imaginative when you reach out to a child's carers. It could make a crucial difference

Be imaginative when you reach out to a child's carers. It could make a crucial difference

Parental engagement: there's a phrase that resonates with every school leader. Either there's too little, too much or it's not the right sort. But everyone agrees that making progress in learning is tough without parents onside to back their children and support the school.

I know this better than most. My primary school in the North of England is in the heart of what used to be the South Yorkshire coalfields. In the past, parents had a strong work ethic and most were extremely supportive of their children's learning. But, over the past two generations, the combination of high unemployment and a shift in cultural norms has posed a problem for parents having, or knowing how to have, high expectations and aspirations for their children.

Scarred and wary

Many of our parents still carry the scars of their own negative educational experiences. Some freely admit to having poor literacy skills, while others have drug and alcohol problems. Engaging them is a challenge, but it is one worth taking on if our current learners are to be the ones to shape an inter-generational change. Fortunately, we have made huge headway in a relatively short time. Our strategy is simple: we engage with parents on their own terms.

Parents' evening is a great example of this; attendance has jumped from 40 per cent to 98 per cent in just three years. The meetings have ceased to be parents' evenings - with many families experiencing unemployment, they can't see the point of being at home all day and then having to come to the school at night. To accommodate this, parents' evening has become a parents' day. We send out personalised invitations and allocate a time slot between 7.30am and 6pm. We phone those who haven't responded by the week before.

We make an occasion of it by putting on a series of events in the school hall - including a slide-show gallery displaying the best of the children's work. And by having parents in the school during the day, we can introduce secondary purposes to their visit - they can take the opportunity to order a new school uniform, for instance, or meet with myself and other senior staff to discuss issues.

We can also advise on other schemes to get parents involved. It is all about demystifying school and taking away the threat that some feel it poses.

Reading together

From this foundation, we have been able to look at approaches to further engage the parents. Recently, we decided to run the Think2Read Story Talk literacy programme. This consists of in-school sessions designed for students aged 3 to 6 and involves parents in helping their children to develop high-level literacy skills as part of a shared reading experience. The emphasis is on creating a lifelong enjoyment of reading rather than simply decoding words.

We decided to call the sessions "workshops" in an attempt to make them sound as unthreatening and informal as possible, and to dispel the idea that this was a talk-and-chalk lesson in which the parents would be passive recipients. And then we embarked on the invitations. In each year group of 30, we sent letters home four times, we used the school website and we sent text messages.

The result of this gargantuan effort was 11 responses. Some would dismiss this as a pitifully low take-up rate but we felt really heartened. We knew that numbers weren't everything; the quality and depth of parental engagement would also be key to the programme's success.

And we felt confident that if we succeeded in making the parents feel really welcome, word would spread and others would follow. We also said that any attendees could bring along a friend, in the hope that they would offer moral support and encouragement to others too anxious to attend the workshops on their own.

So, having sent out another 60 invitation reminders two days before the programme launched, we embarked on the first workshop with excitement and trepidation. The good news was that 15 parents came along rather than the 11 we were expecting. Frustratingly, however, there was no sign of four of the original tranche who had signed up before Christmas. But the huge win was the level of involvement.

We started the session with only the parents. We wanted them to be physically doing something throughout so we asked them to choose a book for themselves and say something about their choice. We discussed how the book had hooked them and that made an immediate connection with what hooks a child.

We also did a mind-mapping exercise, focusing on all the reasons why children need good reading skills. The fact that the parents included CVs and university applications in their answers told us a lot about the quality of their aspirations for their children.

After talking about how reading was a bonding opportunity for parents and children, we brought the students into the room to share the first book they would be reading as part of the programme. The parents embraced their children and were extremely active in sharing the books with them.

I had been concerned that some of the adults, especially those with parenting problems, would stay silent and be reticent about joining in with the activities but my fears proved to be unfounded. As it turned out, the more verbal ones quickly hooked the quieter ones into the activities.

We felt elated after the workshop and confident that the session had got the right message across to our parents. This was the perfect launch pad from which to grow the numbers further. Will we succeed? Watch this space.

Nichola Thorpe is executive headteacher of Worsbrough Bank End Primary School in the North of England

What else?

For more on the non-profit Think2Read programme, visit

It's a family affair as we explore how schools in England are getting parents involved.


This Teachers TV video shows how best to engage parents in a positive way.


Teachers exchange their own ideas to promote parental engagement on this TES Connect web forum.


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