For generations, parent-readers have been the backbone of school support systems. However, schools have needed more help than ever over the past few years with curriculum-based and extra-curricular activities. This means the role of parents and other volunteers is evolving rapidly.
Here at The Key we receive many requests from school leaders, asking how to get parents more involved in school life. Get it right and you'll gain more than just an extra pair of hands. In its 2007 report, Every Parent Matters, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) acknowledged that "parental involvement has a significant effect on pupil achievement".
With the right approach and some parent-savvy guidelines in place, their array of knowledge, skills and expertise can be put to good use. Antoinette Drinkhill, headteacher of St John the Baptist Junior School in Sheffield, says: "Close links between home and school are important if children are to succeed and achieve their social and academic potential."
Ms Drinkhill also thinks that volunteering gives parents another perspective or vantage point from which to support children "in a positive and holistic way".
Equally, Suzanne Gooch, a parent in north London, is delighted to be helping out at her daughters' school. "I feel more involved in my girls' education by volunteering," she says.
So how do you make the most of this enthusiasm? Create a list of parents' skills in an instant "expert" directory. This will help you to identify those who are perfect for your school's latest project or topic.
Professor John Bastiani, consultant and author of Involving Parents, Raising Achievement, a report published by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in 2003, is particularly keen on the idea of creating a semi-formal inventory of parents' "cultural knowledge, work experience and special interests".
One school in central London requests this information at the beginning of the year and parents are assigned to classes or year groups accordingly.
Alternatively, some schools create a wish-list of skills and knowledge that they are keen to find in their parent volunteers. This helps those parents who do not know what to offer. Some schools find it useful to display a "skills wanted" notice on their website. Getting parents to sign up for activities they find interesting means they will be more enthusiastic and engaged.
However, parent volunteers need to have a Criminal Records Bureau check. Many schools and local authorities provide guidelines and have policies, with a signed agreement between the school and the volunteer.
A sign-in system, explanations of health and safety procedures, confidentiality and conduct agreements help to manage parents' expectations and heighten their status. You should make it clear how pupils are expected to behave with non-teaching staff and tricky customers.
To make parents feel comfortable, consider where they can take a break or have a coffee. Some schools have a special volunteer room, others are happy for volunteers to join staff in the staffroom. However, this does raise issues of confidentiality and staff may feel uncomfortable. Ask them how they feel.
Some parents like to commit to a slot every week; others want a one-off or ad hoc arrangement. Parents may even prefer to be involved in activities outside of office hours. As long as it's clear, then you can plan.
By working with an identified group or class, parent volunteers and teachers build up a rapport. The children will also become more familiar and confident working with familiar faces. It's at your discretion whether parents are assigned to the year group or a class that their own child is in.
Treating a parent volunteer with the same respect as any other member of support staff will make him or her feel at home. Teachers should include the role of volunteers in lesson plans, and communicate clearly.
The support that parents and volunteers offer to schools adds huge value to a child's learning and helps busy staff. However, it also opens up the world of the classroom to parents. Ms Drinkhill says: "It deepens parental understanding of the way in which schools work, which can only be beneficial."
Fe McKerrell is a specialist researcher in curriculum and learning at The Key, an independent service that supports school leaders. Visit www.usethekey.org.uk
Every Parent Matters www.teachernet.gov.ukeveryparentmatters
TES parent and community resources www.tes.co.ukparents.