Julie Morrice describes how a primary school was able to replace hostility with warmth in its relations with parents
When Doreen Boyd took over as headteacher at Logans primary in north Motherwell, the relationship between staff and parents was that of cold war. A file of authoritarian letters was the only evidence she found of communication between the two sides. After nine years in nursery education, Boyd was accustomed to a close working partnership between parents and teachers, and involving parents in Logans primary was one of her first aims.
She still remembers her horror on her first parents' night at the school. She had told staff she wanted to be welcoming and open with parents, then found the janitor running around putting chairs outside all the classroom doors. "I couldn't believe that parents were still being made to wait in the corridor to see a teacher," she says.
Little research has been done into the effect a parent's relationship with a school can have on a pupil's performance, but it is generally accepted that the more involved parents are with their child's education, the more successful the child will be. The traditional model of parent involvement has taken two forms: the primary school parent who comes in to mix paint or listen to reading; and the middle-class, "active" parent who sits on the school board.
But in recent years, with changing expectations and the parents' charter, schools are reaching out to parents in different ways. Jim Callery has been headteacher of Tormusk primary in Glasgow's Castlemilk for 10 years. He is a big, bearded man in a woolly jumper, the physical antithesis of the sharp-featured dominie who still stalks the parental subconscious.
As we sit talking in his spartan office, a woman sticks her head round the door to talk about a meeting. The conversation moves on to her health, and a brief chat about her son's progress at school. Then she is off, with smiles and good wishes on all sides. There couldn't be a better advertisement for Tormusk's policy of openness and welcome towards parents.
Ten years ago Tormusk had low attendance and a pretty hostile relationship with parents. Contact was usually only made when there was a problem. Having come from a quite different school where parents were involved in fundraising and costume-making for the panto, Callery and his deputy head set out to make parents feel welcome.
After a few false starts, the school found itself with a group of parents who helped out in the classroom and were for ever in and out of the building. Four years ago, the policy moved on with the introduction of so-called quality circles, brainstorming groups made up of, say, two class teachers, two parents, two pupils and a janitor. A group would be given an area of school management to discuss, such as how to organise playground supervision or what homework the pupils should have; they would be given limits, eg there is no money available, and told that if they stayed within those limits and reached agreement within the group, their proposals would be implemented. Since then, Tormusk's quality circles have had a major impact on management decisions in the school.
"There is a lot of poverty, deprivation and difficulty in Castlemilk, but the children are just as loved, valued and cared for as any others," says Callery. "We came to realise that parental involvement is not an option. We have a partnership whether we want it or not. We can only decide whether to make it a productive partnership, or not."
In Motherwell, 11 years after Doreen Boyd joined the staff, the school-parent relationshiphas grown beyond what many people would think possible - or even desirable. Boyd makes apoint of phoning a child's home not only when things go badly wrong, but when a pupil has performed outstandingly well,or has made an extra effort.
She remembers one father who responded with fury to such a call, demanding to know how she had the time to phone him when she had a school to run. Yet, involving parents in a school is not so much a question of extra work as a different attitude. It is significant that during Doreen Boyd's time at Logans all but one member of the existing staff have moved on to other schools. Working openly with parents, it seems, is something teachers either or hate.
The most successful parent project at Logans is one that Doreen Boyd at first treated with suspicion. As part of a pilot scheme, the school was asked to try out "parent prompts" - a series of discussion topics that would be introduced in class, followed up at home by the family, then reported back on the next day. "I thought it was nonsense," says Boyd. "They were to sit down and watch Neighbours with their children, and then talk about the characters' clothes, or discuss what was going to happen next. I thought it was a real slap in the face for parents."
In fact, it took off. One parent told Boyd it was the first time she had really talked to her daughter since she was five years old.
The next stage was "social issue prompts", introduced as a result of one particularly difficult mother-son relationship at the school. Rather than discussing the plot of soaps, pupils took home little stories about young people staying out late, or their demands for designer labels, all the knotty problems that families face.
"The parents started enjoying it more than anyone," says Boyd. "It was a chance for them to talk to their kids about these issues outwith crisis time, and before the problem began. They got on to some really meaty stuff. They wouldn't put the television on and would talk to the kids all night."
"Emotional prompts" have now been added to the menu, encouraging parents and children to discuss each other's feelings. Parent prompts have been integrated into the curriculum for P6 and 7, and teachers are looking at introducing the scheme further down the school.
Parallel with the home-based prompts, parents are encouraged into the school itself. In the first few weeks of her tenure, Boyd wrote personal letters to all the pupils' parents, inviting them to come for a cup of tea and a chat in groups of eight or 10.
"I mixed them up carefully, so there wasn't a big bunch from one class who would form a clique," she says. More than 90 per cent of parents showed up. "Probably just to find out what on earth was going on."
Now, from the child's first days at the school, parents are encouraged to come in and talk with teachers, and to find out what and how their child will be learning. The school sends out frequent newsletters; they are on number 12 for this school year. Parents are invited to special Friday morning assemblies every term, and about 60 of them turn up each time.
Logans has parent helpers, such as Moira Macnamara and June Thomson, who are involved in practically everything going on and whom Boyd describes as "the lifeblood of the school"; but the overwhelming message is that you don't have to be a parent helper to be involved in your child's education, and that effective schooling is about parents and teachers learning to trust each other.