Bringing the parents on board

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Mike Combe explains how a pioneer school has used an Open University course

When the board of management at Maxwelltown High in Dumfries met with the Open University in Scotland at the end of 1995, it was decided to offer one of the OU's community education courses, "Make Your Experience Count", to parents of pupils. As a result of this agreement, and despite having only minimum resources and funding, a unique project is now in place. Within the past year more than 30 parents and eight pupils have been actively involved. The issues tackled include increased parental involvement, changing attitudes to education, disruptive behaviour by pupils and consultation between staff, parents and pupils. Those involved believe that the way in which this has been achieved is genuinely innovative.

At the time, I was employed by the OU as co-ordinator for an adult education project in Dumfries and Galloway sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Three years of funding was coming to an end and one of the last decisions was to run the course at Maxwelltown High. Nine parents expressed an interest but only three followed it through. In an area where it is notoriously difficult to achieve community involvement and which has social and economic problems more commonly associated with urban areas this was not surprising. Against the odds we decided to press ahead. The course has several optional components, one of which is learning a new skill. We extended this option to three sessions to consider the possibility of setting up the project at Maxwelltown. The only remit was that parents, pupils and staff must be involved.

A key decision was for the assistant headteacher to join the course as a student. He took part in all the personal development exercises. I tutored the course in the lounge bar at Palmerston Park, home of Queen of the South football club. This type of work in such a relaxed and informal setting formed close relationship that were vital in establishing trust and getting the project off the ground. The assistant head provided the parents with as much information as possible about the school, how it operates, what problems it faced and its strengths. I gave them a brief introduction to some of the principles of successful community development.

The hope was that with the confidence gained from the personal development work the parents would be able to use this information to plan the way ahead. Misunderstandings and differing points of view were resolved with a frankness and honesty that had been developed throughout the course.

The parents decided that an initial proposal for some kind of homework club should wait and instead a tour of the school was organised during a normal working day. Seeing the school operate as it usually does, talking to staff as they walked around and being debriefed by staff at the end of the tour when they had the opportunity to ask questions proved invaluable. This was seen as genuine access, not the usual staged event associated with so-called "open evenings". Since those early days the parents have been involved in producing publicity for the walkabouts, as they are now called, and will now lead the tours themselves in an attempt to recruit more parents to the project.

Maximise was chosen as a name for the project and the next idea was to hold a series of information sessions for other interested parents. The topics were chosen by the parents and included learning support, social education - particularly sex education and drug awareness, mathematics, the guidance discipline procedures and promoting positive behaviour within the school. Information sessions resulted in a significant number of new recruits to the project. Further publicity and recruitment at parents evenings increased the total number of parents involved to 22.

A development committee was formed and further training offered in the form of another OU community education course, on "Better Meetings". This took place in the staffroom and was again attended by the assistant head. The headteacher attended many of those meetings. Ideas were exchanged and some changes to the format of parent evenings were suggested and acted on. The idea of residential trips involving staff, parents and pupils was suggested. At the time a small group of second-year boys were engaging in constant low-level disruption. Four parents agreed to work with them on a residential course with the assistant head and myself to see if the situation could be improved.

The parents of the boys involved were invited to attend meetings and asked to sign a contract allowing this work to take place with the volunteer parents. This was a risky strategy but the residential trip did go ahead and was followed up by using parents as advisers to individual pupils. Some measure of success was achieved, not least in stronger relationships between school management and the parents of the boys involved, but more important were the lessons learnt. It is hoped to continue this type of work this year and with the benefit of hindsight it is anticipated that even more success will be achieved.

The next stage will be the formation of a pupil-parent forum. An evening event is being organised to promote the idea and achieve further recruitment to Maximise. It is seen by both parents and school management as having the potential to gather information by bringing parents and pupils together and contribute in shaping the future direction of the school. We do not know what the exact format will be but this is in keeping with the community development approach that has been the hallmark of the project to date. In essence this involves trusting the people, giving them the knowledge and skills required to do the job and whenever possible acting on the suggestions that are made.

During the past year a total of Pounds 6,000 in funding was obtained from the local authority, the OU and a local trust fund. One of the original parents on the course spoke on behalf of the project at the meeting that led to the successful local authority bid. This money has been used to employ me on a freelance basis to co-ordinate the project and to finance the other activities.

Both school management and the Open University in Scotland believe we have a model that could be replicated elsewhere. I agree, but the model is rooted in a combination of sound community development and adult education practice rather than a prescribed list of activities.

Certain components are crucial: the accessibility and attitude of school management and the use of quality off-the-shelf Open University community education courses are obvious examples. However, more important than the actual components is the way in which they have always been utilised to inform and encourage the parents in following their own ambitions. That is why we now have more than 30 parents with some in-depth knowledge of the school and more confidence to become involved.

Only the resources are lacking.

Mike Combe is a consultant for the Open University in Scotland and project co-ordinator for Maximise.

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