A family affair
Schools are increasingly reaching out to parents, but the relationship between home and school can be a tricky one. Teachers talk of partnership and collaboration, but the thrust of legislation in the UK and in the US has been to put parents on a pedestal as consumers and drivers of school improvement.
Now Ofsted has gone a step further, inviting parents to rate their child's school online - as they might a holiday on TripAdvisor - using a 12-point Parent View questionnaire.
It hardly seems the way to engender mutual "warts and all" trust between teachers and parents. Over in the US, the backlash has already started: two months ago, a Republican state representative introduced a bill into the Florida House that, if passed, would set minimum standards for parental involvement and require teachers to grade parents on how well they measure up to them.
Away from the politics, however, few would deny the benefits of parental involvement. Research has consistently shown the huge benefits to the child. One of the most comprehensive studies, by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2008, found parental involvement in schooling for a child between the ages of 7 and 16 was a more powerful force than family background, size of family and level of parental education.
However, legislative efforts to involve parents - Every Child Matters in England and No Child Left Behind in the US - have been "pretty hit and miss" approaches. That is the view of Bill Lucas, chair of an international advisory board on parental involvement for the global private school chain GEMS. In the end, he says, it comes down to the school.
"The first thing schools need to do is to understand what parents can do at home so they can better help them to do it. There needs to be a mindset shift saying we are both in this together as educators," says Lucas, also professor of learning at the University of Winchester. "Don't just hold meetings to show how things are taught at school - provide lots of information and activities about what parents can do with their children at home," he says.
More than the basics
All schools now provide a wealth of information for parents about the curriculum, school policies and events. But is this enough to create partnership?
In 2007, Ofsted carried out a survey that found that all schools valued the involvement of parents and carers, but that only the best made them active partners. "Some schools paid insufficient attention to the particular areas in which parents and carers could have the most impact," said its report.
The inspectors said all the schools were good at giving information about the curriculum, examinations and coursework, but only a few gave sufficient guidance about what parents should actually do to support their children's learning.
Seven of the schools were rated outstanding for their work with parents, one of them Chevening CE primary in Chipstead, Kent. Initiatives put in place by Ruth Bowers, the headteacher at the time, have been maintained and expanded by new head Helen Jones. "We have an open-door policy and are very much focused on providing ways that parents can help their children learn at home," she says.
The school's internet site has a large parents' section with a wide range of games and activities to help children gain literacy and numeracy skills, some of them written by the children themselves. There are links to other educational sites and places of interest to visit. Emails go out to parents every week about what the children will be doing in class the following week, giving them the opportunity to reinforce the curriculum by what they do and talk about at home.
Reception and Year 1 children have a journal in which they keep photographs and write-ups of what they have been doing in class during the week and what they have done at home over the weekend. The journals cause quite a lot of excitement in the playground when the children share them on a Monday morning, says Jones.
When parents expressed bafflement over the way calculation was being taught in maths, Jones decided that a meeting to explain the methods was not sufficient. "We didn't think that we could explain it in one session and so decided to teach parents to do it that way. We held a course for parents of three two-hour sessions in the evenings over three weeks. They were very well attended," she said.
Policies are formed in consultation with the parent forum that has had a large part to play in the school improvement plan. Members of the forum are picked at random from the register and changed every two years to ensure a spread. The forum is not just a talking shop. "Last year the parents said they wanted more regular information on the progress their children were making. As a result we now do three reports a year focused on effort and progress," she says.
Understanding the different needs of parents is important. At her previous school in a poorer part of Kent, the challenge was to involve those who never ventured through the doors. "In a school like Chevening the expectations of home and school are very similar. In my last school some of the parents had different priorities from education, but I have never met a parent who was not passionate about their child," she says.
At her previous school, parents would be unlikely to come into school to talk to a teacher, but if their child was involved, that was a different matter. "One afternoon, we invited parents to come in and sit at the desks and be taught by their children about what they were learning in class. We had 100 per cent attendance. They loved it. We did it regularly and it worked every time."
Usually it is harder to get parents through the doors in secondary schools. However, a survey by the Family and Parenting Institute found that schools could make a difference if they employed link workers to follow up non-attendance at parents' evenings and visit families at home, and if they arranged informal meetings for staff and parents.
One school in an area with a high number of ethnic minority children had employed a young Bengali professional woman to promote levels of engagement with the school. Another was working with the local mosque to improve school attendance.
Phil Munday, principal of Henry Cort Community College, an 11-16 comprehensive in Fareham, Hampshire, says the introduction of vertical, mixed-age tutor groups has helped foster links between home and school. "Children stay in the same groups with the same tutor - or in some cases two tutors - as they move up the school, so parents know who to contact. We also have a house system and parents get to know the head of house as well," he says.
The school also employs a link worker whose job it is to ensure information gets out to parents, funded jointly by Henry Cort and local primary schools. A parent support worker is also employed four days a week to work with the more difficult-to-reach families, or ones where greater involvement is needed.
"We work from the premise that if the parents are working with us the vast majority of children will succeed," says Munday. "Sometimes the parent has had a bad experience themselves at school and struggles to work with us. Sometimes parents are dealing with problems and traumas at home that we don't know about. If we are in contact with them then we can put them in touch with people who can help and do things to support the child at school."
Any doubt that parental involvement boosts results is dispelled at the beginning of each year when he orders the last Year 11s on a graph according to their exam results. He then colours in blue for the amount of contact with parents over the year. "The top results are the ones in dark blue and it gets lighter as you go down the list. It is sending a message to the staff that support from parents is going to make a difference, so sometimes they need to be flexible with their appointment times and make sure that there is time to meet parents informally."
Reaching out to parents needs a lot of thought and planning, but it need not be expensive, he says: "Little things can make a difference, such as having coffee and biscuits and squash for the children. If you were invited to their houses, that is what they would do for you."
The impact of parental involvement on children's education. Department for Children, Schools and Families (2008).
Parents, carers and schools. Ofsted (2007).
School-parent partnerships. Family and Parenting Institute (2009).
Recommendations from Ofsted's 2007 report, Parents, carers and schools:
Identify the areas of their work that would benefit most from parents' and carers' involvement.
Use a range of appropriate and flexible methods to communicate with them in timely ways.
Support them by complementing information about what is happening in school with guidance about providing support at home.
Involve parents, carers and pupils in setting targets.
Identify parents' and carers' skills and interests to improve learning.
Involve the extended family.
Extend successful practices developed for particular groups across the school.
Monitor and evaluate the impact of parental involvement on raising pupils' achievement.
The dad issue
As recently as 40 years ago men knew their place in childbirth - and it was not the delivery room. Not until the 1970s did fathers begin to venture into what was then seen as a female domain. But nowadays nine in 10 are present to witness the birth of their children, according to researchers at the University of Oxford. All it took was an invitation.
While a school can hardly be compared to a birthing room, there is a message for education in the history of fathers' involvement at the very start of their children's lives. According to headteachers who have sought greater engagement with fathers, they are just waiting for permission.
Fathers are a largely untapped resource for increasing the involvement of parents in their children's education. Two of the most successful initiatives started in the pub, and both schools say having fathers in school has raised children's self-esteem. Their presence has also given out a clear message that education matters to men - particularly important in primary schools where only 12 per cent of teachers are male and more than a quarter have no men on their teaching staff.
Fathers were found to be far less involved than mothers in a survey carried out by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2008. But nearly 70 per cent wanted to do more, rising to 81 per cent among the predominantly male non-resident parents.
A Super Dads group has been running at a primary school in the Welsh valleys since 2001. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles and stepfathers come in every Tuesday afternoon to do activities with their children, with the favourite being not sport but cooking. "We had a good relationship with mothers, but dads were off the radar," says Gareth Todd Jones, the headteacher of Pen Pych Community Primary.
"At the time the buzzword was inclusion and I suddenly realised that we were reaching out to everyone else, but not men."
The first meeting was over a pint at the local rugby club and the men chose the sort of involvement they wanted. "I thought it would be sport but it is not at all. They are marvellous at cooking with the children. We have 15 dads with an average of two children each, which is a challenge, but we manage," Todd Jones says.
A few years ago, mothers asked if they could be included. "I was happy to turn it into a family group, but the men said 'no fear', so it has remained a dads' group.
Fathers are desperate to play a part in their child's education, they just do not know how to do it, according to Coopers Lane School, a primary in Lewisham, southeast London. Its Dads Matter group meets once a month in the local pub or at the school to discuss things such as how to help with homework.