Involving parents can improve pupils' behaviour and results, as Diana Hinds discovers
Getting parents involved in their children's education is important. We all know that. Research shows that supportive parenting improves achievement and behaviour. But what if the standard tactics, such as parents' evenings and letters home, aren't working?
The Compton School in Finchley, north London, thinks parent support groups could be the answer. It was recently placed in the top 5 per cent of schools nationally for its GCSE value added scores, and sets great store by its three-way contracts between staff, pupils and parents.
The contracts involve bringing parents of troubled teenagers in to share strategies for managing behaviour and were introduced in response to concerns about disruption.
"We wanted to think about how we could support parents who were pulling their hair out," says Louise Taylor, deputy head.
"Asking parents to come in for something like this is a difficult area for schools. You don't want to add to parents' anxieties about feeling inadequate and you don't want them to feel they are being judged. I had to make it clear that I was there in a different role."
Parents of children causing concern were specifically targeted and asked to come, but the group was opened to others as well. The support groups initially drew about eight or 10 participants, mainly mothers, and met one evening a week. To begin with, they discussed simple strategies - as useful in the classroom as in the home - for coping with teenagers, such as setting boundaries, giving praise, and ignoring negative behaviour until it's the right moment to deal with it.
Later, when Louise took on the running of the group on her own, she opted for a more structured approach with a programme based on the book, Developing parenting skills, confidence and self-esteem by Barbara Quartey and Tina Rae. This introduced a more reflective element into the discussions, encouraging parents to think back to their own models and influences.
Louise now advises other schools who want to take a similar approach to start small and have a clear set of objectives. "It has to be more than just a discussion group, and you can't just see who turns up," she says.
Massy Tabib-Zadeh, a senior teaching assistant at The Compton School, helped with the group from its launch, and has been able to liaise, tactfully, between children she was supporting in school and their parents.
"It did make a difference in school because the strategies were going home," she says. "I had one boy who knew I was talking to his mum, and he was paying attention and responding more to me because of it. I told her he responded well to praise, so she was giving him more praise, and I think their relationship has improved a lot."
Jeanette Evans, a parent, found the group helped her deal with the difficulties she was having with her adolescent daughter, as well as improving her relationship with the school. "I have always felt intimidated by teachers, but through the group got to know Louise and other teachers better. It's helped me feel more at ease with them." Louise says the group has been effective in improving children's behaviour chiefly because: "it is a clear sign to the children that their parents are involved with the school, and they know that and respect that. It makes the three-way partnership more explicit."
Although they have struggled to maintain numbers, the group is still running and is now being led by two trained facilitators from a local housing and regeneration charity, Family Mosaic, which plans to run individual surgeries alongside the group workshops.
Last year the Compton School took part in a Specialist Schools and Academies Trust project, Engaging Parents in Raising Achievement (Epra). The project funded about 100 schools to develop different ways of involving parents - particularly those seen as hard to reach - such as electronic mail and learning platforms (see panel).
Research by Warwick University in 30 of the Epra schools established that where parents and teachers worked together to improve learning, the gains in achievement were significant. Parents had greatest influence, the study found, where they supported learning in the home, rather than activities in school. "Schools are learning the value of targeting small groups of parents and breaking away from traditional models; for instance, not everything has to be in the school hall with a teacher standing at the front," says Kirstie Andrew Power, the trust's head of learning programmes.
A TOUCH OF CLASS
Learning platforms and academic mentoring
The Romsey School in Hampshire has developed a virtual learning area, the Romsey Learning Platform, giving pupils access to subject resources at home.
Parents have a zone on the learning platform where they can access every member of staff's homework record. They also receive detailed programmes of study for key stage 3. Traditional parents' evenings have been replaced by an academic mentoring system, which has increased parental participation from 80 per cent to 95 per cent. Each pupil discusses progress and targets individually with his or her form teacher, and the following term, parent, pupil and teacher meet to review this.
"We have made more inroads with our hard to reach parents with this system," says Jenny Pitman, the assistant head.
ParentMail, Learning Walks and parent research
Beauchamp College in Leicester has invested in a product called ParentMail as a way of communicating electronically with parents - 80 per cent of whom have now signed up.
"We are not just sending information to parents, but materials that can help them support their children's learning," says Angela Lancini, Advanced Skills Teacher co-ordinator.
Although parents cannot reply directly via ParentMail, most teachers make their school email addresses available and the system is working well, she says.
The school is also hoping to extend its Learning Walks, already popular with pupils, to parents in the summer term. A Learning Walk enables people to consider a particular issue in school, such as sociology study or student services, by walking around the school and observing it. They evaluate the issue through questionnaires to parents and pupils, then give feedback. "It's a clear, focused learning visit," says Richard Parker, the principal.
Research is another option for Beauchamp parents, and last year a parent research group undertook some work on parents' evenings by surveying other parents. This year another group is researching transition from key stage 3 to 4, and 4 to 5, and will post its findings on the school website.