Get the old yins back to class

16th October 1998 at 01:00
It's hard to believe but a primary school in one of the most deprived pockets of Scotland sees 90 per cent of parents coming through the doors on parents' nights. The full enormity of the statistic makes this one of several schools that arouse the interest of concerned teachers elsewhere, despondent at the number of empty chairs at their own parents' nights.

Craigmuir primary in West Pilton, Edinburgh, does not fit the stereotype school where articulate parents are all present and correct on these occasions. In this part of the city - a location for many of the scenes in the drugs movie Trainspotting - every second house is without a wage earner and almost half the children grow up in single parent homes. Until recently some children were third generation illiterates.

But West Pilton was also the base in 1994 for an early intervention pilot scheme, now famous for raising children's achievement. Family involvement including good attendance at parents' nights is credited with part of the scheme's success.

One Craigmuir mother, Helen Scarr, suggests that it may be a chicken-and-egg situation. She has her own views about why so many mothers,grannies and some fathers turn up: "It's very simple. The kids at the school are doing so incredibly well, we know we will hear good things when we go."

This school community seems to be locked into an upward spiral of parental involvement and children's achievement, partly because for many mothers and fathers living in a neighbourhood associated - unfairly or not -with dole, drugs, demolition and depression, the kids' success is often the best thing that has ever happened in the parents' lives.

Kate Brown, until recently the school's headteacher, believes that the introduction of a creche had a major part to play in upping attendance figures at parents' nights. A family appointment system also made life easier.

Part of the school's arsenal of techniques is a direct note from the child. In class, children design an invitation which typically describes a particular piece of work they have done well and adds: "I really want you to come and see it."

A weekly women's group and a parent and toddler group in the school building help break down barriers between the school and the community long before a child is ever on the roll. Many mothers are well used to walking through the front door.

Whatever their own experience of school, they have a more positive experience of this school from the early years of parenthood, as it provides a warm room with toys, juice, coffee and company. The subliminal message is that school can be interesting and supportive, to some extent a home from home.

In later years a homelink teacher and general teaching staff help strengthen this concept. Kate Brown says: "The word partnership tends to be bandied around but that relationship with your parent body must be there. It has to be open and honest."

Many headteachers stress that parents' nights cannot be seen in isolation. If a good general relationship has been built up with parents - more difficult in some catchment areas than others - mum and possibly dad are far more likely to be there on the night.

One head went so far as to say: "You get the turn-out you deserve. If you have been very active in forging positive links through newsletters, your presence at the gate in the morning and genuine consultative meetings with parents, they will be there for you when you want volunteers for the Christmas fair or you want their presence at parents' night."

In a more favoured setting, Sheila McKendrick, acting head of North Berwick high, says one small but significant way in which her school tries to communicate to parents the importance of their role is by returning promptly any call a parent makes to the school. They also try to create a better atmosphere at parents' nights by centralising the teachers in one area rather than arranging appointments in the individual classroom. "It sounds quite a minor thing but it is quite important." In common with many schools, North Berwick strives for openness and friendliness by laying on tea and coffee for parents and offering tours of the building with senior pupils.

Many schools organise a presentation on parents' nights either by a member of staff or a guest speaker such as a careers officer or a psychologist. A talk on truculent teenagers, for example, encourages more parents along, encourages them to think about more than their individual child and gives them a welcome sense of not being alone in the problems they may have. A photo display of an outdoor trip or (for primary schools) a video on the associated secondary are other features designed to make the meeting more interesting.

Educational consultant Cameron Munro, formerly of Strathclyde University,makes a strong plea for more schools to keep a record of which parents turn up to meetings and how often. But he stresses the need for diplomacy in doing so and the need to entice parents along with a well-organised, forward-looking meeting. "Can you guarantee that they will hear something good about their child? Nobody wants to come along 'to get telt their weans are trouble'.

"The interview should look to the future, be constructive and interactive. My personal complaint as a parent is that nobody ever asks me things, they just tell me things. Teachers should ask: 'Can you help us find out how to motivate your son?'" Factual information such as an outline of Standard grade geography could be available in a jargon-free leaflet or report, he suggests, so that the few minutes each parent has with a teacher can be tightly packed with information personal to that child.

Some schools identify in advance the parents they most want to see and send out a personalised letter urging them to come. Some make a concerted effort to persuade social workers from foster homes to act in loco parentis for children in their care by turning up for parents' nights. And some schools have tried to market parents' nights by publicising them in shops, community centres and parish churches.

On occasion, parents' nights such as the crucial one before third year are held in neutral territory, such as a community centre, in a bid to encourage adult school phobics.

In the west Highlands if parents fail to attend for any reason, Gairloch high head Neil Wilkie invites them individually to come in on another occasion. "It is more difficult to refuse an invitation if it is personal,but I think the message has got through that very few could escape, even if they wanted to - they'll get nabbed on their own anyway."

He aims to make parents' night "as intimate and social an experience as possible", so that parents do not find it just a chore and can get to know staff and each other better. Inviting parents to wash up the coffee cups together is one interesting strategy.

As the school has the largest catchment area in Scotland - 700 square miles - it has a particular incentive to make evenings worthwhile. Some parents may have to travel 15 miles along single-track roads. Parents from the Scoraig peninsula have to embark on a 20-minute boat journey, then a 60-mile round road trip. To lessen the chance of cancellation because of bad weather, meetings are rarely arranged in December or January.

Leith Academy in Edinburgh lengthened the parents' night to three hours to make it easier for parents to come, and abolished the bell disliked by those who had less than fond memories of their own school days.

But a significant breakthrough came when the school staged a parents' evening with a difference. Visitors were invited to follow a timetable in a "Back to School" session, so that they could get an idea of their child's experience in the class.

One minute they were laying out a business spreadsheet or using CD-Roms to absorb geography, the next wielding a hockey stick or dribbling a basketball, the next wandering home clutching a silk screen painting they had done.

"The ripple effect from that evening was tremendous," says headteacher Sandy McAulay. "Some of the parents had never set foot in the building before. It removed the fear factor for some of them."

Staff commend holding this type of parents' evening occasionally. One teacher said after the pilot last autumn: "That was the most enjoyable lesson I've had in 15 years of teaching."

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