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How to make them feel at home

Schools can be intimidating places for parents, especially secondary schools. We all have our memories of school and, for those of us in the teaching profession, they are, for the most part, likely to be positive recollections. Yet when you speak to some parents, you begin to realise why the fortress mentality, which many schools strive to overcome, remains such a massive obstacle.

One of the strategies which can break down such barriers is the use of home visits. In my first few weeks as a headteacher, I visited many homes to talk to parents and children in their own environment, as opposed to the headteacher's lair. Most of my initial home visits were related to attendance issues, and there were a number of pupils who got a shock when their new headteacher arrived at the door to ask why they weren't at school. I rarely had to return once I'd had a "blether" with their parents.

On one occasion, a parent approached me at an information evening and explained she was having real difficulties in getting her 16-year-old son to school, as she often left home before he had to get out of his bed. We agreed that, the next time he wasn't at school, I could make a home visit.

As it happened, the very next day he was absent. Armed with his address and directions, I set off with a colleague (always go accompanied). I went up to the door, rang the bell, knocked and knocked harder - no answer. I listened at the letter box, heard loud music (he must still be in bed!) and shouted through the letter box. The music got louder. I tried the front door: it opened. I walked into the house, shouting for him to come out - no answer. Imagine my surprise when a terrified woman with a baby in her arms came out of a bedroom to explain that no one of that name lived there. I'd got the right house number but the wrong street.

Nevertheless, it's possible that benefit came from an error such as this, as it was the talk of the town for a couple of weeks. "A'm no wantin' that man at oor door, so get yirsel' tae skil."

The home visits for attendance issues certainly worked, but what proved even more worthwhile were re-admission meetings after exclusions, or meetings to explore or resolve other problems that children might be having at school. To sit down, accept hospitality and speak as equals about the child is such a useful strategy. I can't tell you the number of times that my perception of a child has changed by seeing them in their home environment.

I'm not suggesting for one second that headteachers should spend all their days visiting homes, but I don't think it's possible to underestimate the impact it makes when the most senior person in the school is prepared to step outside the expected. The example that such visits set empowers so many others to do the same and can dramatically change the perception of parents towards the school - even those whose experiences as children had been so negative.

I call this the "cheese-counter effect". It goes something like this: two people are at the supermarket cheese-counter and look into each other's trolleys and see a range of products for children. Inevitably, they begin to talk about their experiences of the school. The conversation can go one of two ways - an upward spiral, with the sharing of positive experiences, or a negative spiral.

So many parental perceptions are shaped by what they hear from others. It can be relatively small, regular and seemingly inconsequential activities, such as headteacher home visits, which combine to influence the perception of parents towards a school - one way or the other.

Don Ledingham is head of education in East Lothian Council.

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