Susan Bylina is the kind of parent any school would be glad to have on its parent body. The mother of two boys, one in Year 4 at Carr Green Primary School in Rastrick, West Yorkshire, and the other now at secondary school, she takes a keen interest in what they do at school and is always ready to help them with homework. An accountant by profession, Susan has been treasurer of Carr Green's parent teacher association for the past seven years. With her sons, she has taken part in family learning courses, including numeracy and key stage 2 Sats. She is a member of the School Change Team (a group of parents and staff who meet to discuss issues such as improving lunchtimes) and has recently become a parent governor.
"My children seem to like me being involved at school," she says. "It makes me feel more involved in what they are doing, and it also sends a message to them about helping in the community. Sometimes you have to give something back - if everyone was just uninterested, it would make the school a different place."
But most teachers will testify that, sadly, not every parent meets Susan's exacting standards. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, parent Wayne Edmund was given an Asbo in November for threatening to kill a teacher at the Huddersfield primary school attended by four of his children. He frequently hurled abuse at staff and parents.
It's not just aggressive parents who can pose problems for teachers. One of the most challenging parent tribes is the over-zealous "helicopter" parent, constantly hovering over their children to help them and boost their achievement, even doing their homework for them.
Kate Aspin, a former teacher, now senior lecturer in education at Huddersfield University, recalls a few parents like this. "I thought, `just go and get a job'," she says. So how are schools to navigate these difficulties and get it right with parents?
The Government is acutely aware of the beneficial influence parents can have on their children's learning and development, and the Children's Plan in December 2007 underlined ministers' commitment to helping parents and schools work more closely together. Every Parent Matters, published last year by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, emphasised that "parental involvement in a child's schooling between seven and 16 is a more powerful force than family background, size of family and level of parental education. Educational failure is increased by lack of parental interest in schooling."
In September 2008, the Government began a series of nationwide consultations, Time to Talk, aimed at breaking down the barriers to parents being more engaged with their children's learning.
But what exactly is meant by parental involvement? Should every parent be encouraged to be as active in the school community as Susan Bylina, or is the priority rather for parents to get more involved in supporting their children's learning at home? If teachers welcome parents into school with open arms, is there a danger that some parents can get too involved, challenging teachers in ways that are not always helpful?
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, believes that for teachers, the hallmark of effective parental engagement is that children come to school "ready to learn, suitably equipped and with an understanding of their rights and responsibilities in school".
Other types of parental involvement in the wider life of the school, such as through PTAs or governing bodies, are clearly valuable, she acknowledges. "But if that is seen as the only form of parental engagement, that is disenfranchising many parents who are intimidated by those kinds of organisations."
Schools need to ask themselves how truly representative their parent organisations are, Chris says, and parents should not be made to feel guilty if they don't want to take part in these kinds of activities.
Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, is critical of the way the Scottish Government tends to see parental involvement more in terms of what the government or local authority need, rather than what parents need.
"The Scottish Government has discovered that when parents are involved, their children tend to do better - but it can't understand that the involvement is often invisible, it's often parents at home being supportive."
Schools should not make education dependent on parental involvement, she argues, because "parents have complex lives and they can't all give support all of the time. It needs to be recognised that parents are not an add-on to the school, and the relationship between parents and schools should be much more about building a community, which everyone feels part of. Being involved will mean different things to different people."
Primary schools generally find it easier than secondary schools to forge links with parents, since most are there dropping children off and collecting them at the end of the day. Many primaries now also have an open door policy, encouraging parents to drop in to speak to a teacher whenever they need to, and many also invite parents in to help with class activities, such as reading, cooking and art.
But parents can get too involved, even to the point of being obsessive, says Donald Gunn MacDonald, a former headteacher, now vice-president of the Scottish Parent Councils Association. He remembers one mother who started taking over when she came to help in school, usurping the teacher's role and being critical of what was being done. "It was a difficult situation and we had to set boundaries for this parent, which she felt very sore about," he says.
Reading can be a vexed issue at primary level, with some parents competing with each other over which reading scheme book their child is on. Some even steal the next book from the classroom.
A headteacher remembers how she was confronted by a mother demanding to know why her son was no longer in the fast-track reading group, and explained patiently that since other children in the class had now caught up with her son, there was no longer any need for a fast track.
"Parents can get so hung up on `can they read'," says Kate Aspin. "But there's a lot more to being a gifted human being than just reading." Parents with a hot-housing tendency, she says, sometimes need to be encouraged to help develop other parts of their child, such as the social side, or to come and help in the classroom so they can see that other children are performing just as well as their own.
Equally challenging for teachers are those parents who may have had bad experiences of education and have little desire to have anything to do with the school, let alone help with reading or homework. Others may want to help their children at home, but lack the skills and the confidence to do so.
"The advice I give to primary trainee teachers is, try not to judge parents," says Kate. "We all value education, because we're working in it - but some people don't."
But aggressive parents such as Wayne Edmund can present difficulties for both primary and secondary schools. They may not resort to violence, but are perfectly prepared to storm into the school if they feel their child has been unfairly charged with bad behaviour, or accused of bullying. Lesley Bowyer, headteacher of Carr Green Primary School, has experienced this.
"I always try to make the parent feel I'm listening to them," she says. "We always investigate carefully. I try to defuse the situation first and ask them to meet me later. By then they've usually calmed down and we have a good discussion. It's rare for us still to disagree, because they see we are taking their concern seriously."
Secondary schools often find it harder to keep in touch with parents, because there is no more congregating at the school gates and few teenagers actually want their parents closely involved in what they're doing. Many secondary parents may only come to school a couple of times a year - for a parents' evening, a performance or a concert. But the Government is particularly keen to develop better relationships between secondary schools and parents, and many schools are beginning to communicate with parents using IT, giving them access to online information about what their child is doing.
Annette Wiles, policy and research manager at the NCPTA, a registered charity that promotes partnerships between home and school, has reservations about the Government's emphasis on IT and on secondaries. "IT only works well if the relationship between parent and school is already there - and parents have to feel confident about using that information," she says. "We believe the focus should be more on engaging parents earlier in their children's school career. If you can break down some of the barriers in primary school, there's more chance that engagement will be sustained."
This should not be too formal, however. Home-school contracts, for example, appear to have fallen from favour as a way of maintaining links. "They are a complete waste of time," says Margaret Morrissey of Parents Out Loud, a newly-established pressure group looking at parental involvement in education. "It's a lot of work to get the contracts agreed and get people to sign up, and when something goes wrong, they're not worth the paper they're written on."
Instead, the Government encourages schools to establish parent councils - a representative body giving parents a say in key school issues. Parent councils are only compulsory in trust schools where the trust appoints a majority of governors, but the Government would like to see them established in all schools, a forum more accessible, less formal and less onerous than joining a governing body.
In Scotland, where schools do not have parent governors, more than 90 per cent of schools now have a parent council in some shape or form, and the Scottish Government is carrying out a survey into the activities they are pursuing.
Laura Warren at Parents Out Loud is cautious, however. "A parent council has to be more than a talking-shop," she says. "Parents have to feel that it is of value."
Aside from this, many schools are developing their own innovative ways of involving parents. Maytree Infant and Nursery School in Southampton, with funding from the NCPTA has pioneered a series of resource packs or "brain boosters" for parents, giving them ideas and simple equipment to help their children at home. All Maytree parents are from ethnic minorities and some, according to Bob May, the headteacher, "are not aware of the importance of learning outside school". He impresses upon all parents that only 14.5 per cent of a child's waking hours are spent in school. "Once they've been slapped with this figure, they're all for doing more at home," he says.
Shade Primary School in Todmorden, Lancashire, has been running weekly sessions for parents and grandparents for the past 18 years. Parents drop in to their children's class for an hour-and-a-half on a Thursday morning, joining in with activities ranging from maths to textiles, puppet-making and gardening.
"It's a chance for parents to see what's going on in school and get to know how children learn, so they can support them more at home," says Lucy Hurst, deputy head. "It's all about community cohesion and everyone pulling together."
Carr Green Primary School has been trying to build better relationships with its hard-to-reach parents for the past four years and recently became the first school in Calderdale to receive the gold standard for its extended services. Its family learning programme, including courses on parenting skills, languages, IT and fishing, draws in more than half of its families every year.
At secondary level, Hope Valley College in Derbyshire focuses on improving attendance at parents' evenings to raise standards. With funding from the NCPTA and Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, the school employs a learning mentor with knowledge of the school's extensive rural catchment area, who telephones, or even visits, parents who are slow in making their appointments for parents' evening. Pupils belong to a vertical tutor group, consisting of about five pupils from each year, and parents' evening generally consists of a single, longer and more private appointment with the tutor instead of the traditional dash around 10 or more teachers. Attendance at parents' evenings now regularly hits 100 per cent, and the tutor system has made for better relationships with parents.
"The relationship between tutor and parent is sustained and gives us a way of dealing with issues as they arise," says Bernie Hunter, the headteacher. "It's a better way of managing behaviour, and means we don't have parents complaining `you only ring us when something's wrong'."
The key to getting parent power where you want it is in negotiating a relationship with parents according to both parties' needs. Long gone are the days when parents were sometimes discouraged from setting foot inside school. Those teachers who build an effective partnership with parents will see only benefits in pupil performance.
Type 1: extreme, aggressive parents who cause problems for teachers and hurl abuse at staff and other parents.
Type 2: the `helicopter' parent, constantly hovering over their children, even doing their homework for them.
Type 3: meddling, obsessive parent who wants to take over the teacher's role and is critical of what the teacher is doing.
Type 4: interested in what their children do at school and ready to help. Any school would be glad to have them on its parent body.
Type 5: may have had bad experiences of education and have little desire to have anything to do with school.
TIPS FOR TEACHERS
Getting it right with parents
- Everyone has been to school, so you can expect every parent to have a view on what you are doing.
- All parents are different - having a child is the one common factor. Try not to be judgmental if parents have different attitudes from your own.
- Establish and maintain channels of information between school and parents; this can be done by using IT, or by giving parents plenty of opportunities to come and speak to you.
- Think about what parents need from you, as well as what you need from them. Research shows that hard-to-reach parents often see the school as hard to reach.
- Be flexible. If certain parents can't or don't attend parents' evenings, try to find what times or occasions would suit them.
- If parents are pushy about their child's progress, first listen to their concerns and encourage them to consider their child's development in the round.
- If parents are aggressive towards you, show that you are prepared to listen (but not to tolerate violent behaviour). Arrange a time to talk later, when they have calmed down, follow up their concerns and get back to them by a specified date. Remember that you both have the child's best interests at heart.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS ABOUT PARENTS
What parents can do to support their children's learning (Every Parent Matters, 2007)
- Read to and with your child.
- Show an interest in what your child is doing outside the home.
- Visit places of interest together.
- Reinforce the importance of doing homework.
- Attend assemblies, plays, concerts and sporting events.
Parental responsibility (Every Parent Matters, 2007)
"Most parents take seriously their responsibilities to ensure that their child attends school and behaves appropriately. Some parents need help to do this effectively and this can be provided by way of a parenting contract, or through other less formal means. But the small number of parents unwilling to accept help and fulfil their responsibilities must be compelled to do so."
Parents and teenagers (Every Parent Matters, 2007)
"Research indicates that the most effective parenting of teenagers requires a fine balancing act between fostering the independence of young people and relaxing boundaries on the one hand, while maintaining warm and authoritative parenting support on the other."
What schools will do for parents (Children's Plan, 2007)
- Parents will be contacted by a staff member at a secondary school before their child starts school.
- Parents will be able to attend transition information sessions preparing them for what to expect at the new school.
- Every child will have a personal tutor who knows them in the round, and who is a main contact for parents.
- Parents will have regular, up-to-date information on their child's attendance, behaviour and progress in learning.
- Parent councils will ensure that parents' voices are heard within the school.
- Parents' complaints will be managed in a straightforward and open way.