Friendly relations

31st October 2008 at 00:00
You can head off conflicts by throwing open your classroom to parents, says Kate Aspin

What do you think of parents? A painful problem? Strangers you come across a couple of times a year? Remote governors? Or an integral part of your school community?

Most teachers view parents as essential partners in education, but their involvement may often only run to the odd consultation, assembly or disco, and as the children get older, the encounters become fewer and more disparate.

The policy and ethos of the school is the key to your relationship with parents.

Ensure that you have discussed this with senior staff and that you understand it. You must work within the parameters of the policy, or else you may not have management support to fall back on.

Assuming you are familiar with the policy, how can you make your classroom and school more carer friendly? If you are in a primary school, ask your early years team, or local children's or Sure Start centre for advice. They have to work closely with parents and have often spent time developing partnerships. Many of these could be extended further up the school and altered to suit different ages.

Schools may run family workshop sessions, when children invite another adult (not necessarily a parent - many children are looked after by a grandparent) or close family friend to accompany them into a lesson. When I was a teacher, we used to take turns in running workshops for a term at a time, so autumn term was Year 1, spring Year 2 and summer was reception, giving them plenty of time to settle in.

The adults came in one morning a week, had coffee and biscuits while we took the register, and then they would come into the session and work alongside the teacher and teaching assistant, half in the ICT suite and half in the classroom, before swapping over.

I was terrified when I took my first session: the idea of explaining learning objectives to adults as well as children was scary. We had between 10 and 20 adults each time and we paired children up with a child who had no adult that week, so no one was left out.

We took the opportunity to plan for things that required a lot of adult help, such as large-scale modelling, poetry, art, drama and science.

Sometimes the adults did take over and do things for the child, rather than with them, but this in itself is an opportunity to guide and demonstrate how schools do things differently.

Obviously none of the work could be used for formal assessment as there had been adult support, but having so many extra pairs of hands was often a big help. The impact on the children was great: they were proud of their work and it broke down barriers between families and school. They also found out much more about what we did with their children.

Of all the schools that I have worked in, this was the one with the lowest number of parental complaints and issues, especially where the younger children were concerned.

I felt this was directly linked to these sessions: they knew what we did and it also had the bonus of helping us deal with issues such as potential special needs.

Parents could work with their child and one or two others, so they could observe others' development and understand where their child fitted in. Rather than having to say that "little Ishmail struggles with his writing", when parents didn't really know what his writing should be like, they could compare and come to their own conclusion, again preventing possible disagreements.

Other ways of encouraging carer involvement include inviting the adults into assemblies to watch their offspring perform or demonstrate their learning, although it's important to remember timing issues: a 9.10am assembly is difficult for many parents and carers, so the odd evening leavers' assembly could be an option.

The PTA and parent governors are invaluable school partners, but be careful. They should be cherished, praised and supported, but if they are viewed as a clique this could damage relationships with other parents. It's important everybody feels they are being treated fairly, and everything should be seen to be above board.

Secondary schools have a more challenging role. They are larger, and parents and carers are more likely to be working. By this age, children are often less keen to tell their parents what is going on at school, and vice versa. But participation and involvement is possible, albeit with creativity and imagination.

Many schools use tutors or form teachers to be the closest link between home and school. If this is your role, especially with Year 7, try to find out as much as you can about family and the local community.

If you use homework books as a communication tool, try to ensure that you treat comments and input seriously. Carers like to feel that they matter and that comments are used to improve the school experience.

Using the web can help too. Posting newsletters and policy information can aid communication, as can guidance and direction on everything from dealing with nits to sex education and bullying. Listing who to contact about lateness or medical appointments may smooth things over.

Other ideas such as a confidence box in school may help carers come forward to report things they may find awkward to explain to staff. Putting any school communication into other languages can help break down barriers too. Having a room where members of the community can meet can aid relationships.

This may be a room where au pairs can gather, as I've heard happened in one school, or it may be a prayer room for the community and children to use during Ramadan or Lent, for example.

A notice board, half for school announcements and half for community information, can build useful bridges too.

Training staff who deal face to face with the public is vital. Warm and welcoming office staff, able to deal with issues from first aid to minor counselling, is a real bonus. No one likes a cold "I'm too busy" approach, and it could mean a small matter escalates into trouble.

Kate Aspin is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Huddersfield

Making parents welcome

- Examine your school entrance objectively: is it easy to locate? Does it have a welcoming feel? Are the logo and school image and ethos clear? How do I get through the entry system? Are staff friendly, or is no one about? What about the phone - is it staffed at lunch or after 3.30pm? Are messages picked up and followed up?

- Look at your website: is it up to date? Does it reflect your ethos? Is the PTA there?

- Try to innovate. If you have held jumble sales for the past 10 years, try a disco. If you have never held a successful open day, change the time. Perhaps combine events - a sports day with a charity auction in the middle; a nativity play and a cake sale.

- Don't be put off by the nay-sayers and doom mongers. Some families will never get involved, some events will be badly attended, if some come, everyone benefits.

- Heads should never underestimate the importance of meet and greet - many would never approach you. Go out at the start and end of the day and meet the customers. They will appreciate it.

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