First contact needn't be an alien concept

11th January 2008 at 00:00
One of the priorities for my school is to improve parent participation. We know how important it is to involve parents and we know the impact that effective parenting can have on pupil performance. But getting parent governors is particularly difficult in our area and we have yet to have an election for this important post. Instead we go out and persuade, cajole and encourage individuals to give it a try.

Our very best parent governors are also employees of the school. We have more than 130 members of support staff - all live locally and many send their children to our school. They make ideal governors because they understand the issues and are not daunted by the "official" nature of the job. Sadly, new rules mean that this group is no longer eligible to serve as parent governors. We do not have a parent teacher association because it is impossible to gather a truly representative (inclusive) group of parents, rather than those with a particular agenda.

Instead of running consultation evenings, where we got around 30 per cent parental attendance, we now run pupil progress review days, from 8am to 8pm three times a year, and get over 90 per cent attendance.

The new Children's Plan outlines a number of ways that schools can improve parent participation and gives examples of good practice. All are in place in some schools already. One suggestion is that every school set up a school council. At present this is not a statutory requirement as it is in Scotland, but one wonders if this might be the long-term plan.

My own school set up a school council about three years ago and it is cited as an example of good practice on the Department for Children, Schools and Families website. But we set it up for a specific purpose - to tackle anti-social behaviour outside school hours - and with a specific time limit. We pulled together the parents of the young people involved. The council was facilitated by a member of support staff whose child was involved. The group met regularly and worked out ways to resolve the problem - and it worked.

Schools must have the freedom to decide what sort of school council and what sort of parent involvement they need, according to their individual circumstances. One size does not fit all. Parent councils are one method, but will not reach all - and are no more representative than the current system of parent governors.

What is important is that schools have good systems in place for listening to the parent voice. Most schools do this as part of self-evaluation, consulting far more parents than parent councils ever would.

One suggestion is that schools do an audit of their communication channels. They may well find that they could do things more efficiently, especially by making use of IT. The key to this is online real-time reporting that parents can access to monitor the progress of their children. Some schools already do this, and parents who do access it appear to love it. But this requires a step-change in the user-friendliness of software. If the Government wants us all to do it, it will have to sort this out. But, given its record on IT, don't hold your breath.

Rather than the Children's Plan telling schools what to do and how to do it, Government should place an obligation on schools to communicate well with parents and consult them regularly. If there is good practice, Government should disseminate it and then leave schools to decide how to proceed. Ofsted will certainly be there to judge whether schools are fulfilling their legal obligations regarding parents.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher of George Green Community School in Tower Hamlets, east London.

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