How to ensure that parents can be powerful partners

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
Parental involvement may be talked of as one key to improving school performance - but talking is often where it stops.

While some new research is finding clear gains where mothers and fathers have been brought into the educating process, there are also signs that teachers, particularly in secondary schools, remain distinctly cautious about the whole idea.

Preliminary research on partnerships with parents by Manchester educational consultant Robert Tweed suggests that many secondary headteachers have very low expectations of the involvement of parents in raising achievement.

And although schools often claim that they are moving away from the idea of the parent-as-client to the idea of parent-as-partner, all too often it remains just that: an idea.

"Many schools subscribe rhetorically to the concept of partnership, without considering its implications in depth . . ." he says in his ICSEI paper based on a survey of 85 secondary schools.

"There is some continuing scepticism among secondary schools about the value of intensive parental involvement. A few schools openly acknowledge that in some respects they actively discourage parental involvement."

However, research co-ordinated by Sheila Shiels, head of history at Roade School in Northampton, is seeking to discover the best ways of encouraging and building upon support from parents in their children's education. And as she will be reporting to ICSEI, such support can have a positive impact on exam results.

Focusing upon work with the parents of pupils with GCSE predictions on the grade DC borderline, the study has found an apparent improvement in the performance of the children involved. The overall proportion of Roade School students attaining five or more GCSEs at A-C rose over a year of the study from 54 per cent to 58 per cent.

Sheila Shiels says keen parents already closely involved with the school had been consulted about how they aided their children's learning, and that advice had been passed on to the target parents through joint mentoring sessions with both their child and the teacher.

"We ran through how important it was to listen, and suggested the time spent driving children to school was a particularly good time to talk to children, because they couldn't get out.

"That talk can be about academic work or it can be about how they're getting on with their friends, but whatever it is it shows that the parent values what's going on at school.

"With some it still didn't work: if the children were closed to them it was very difficult. But the majority of parents said they had an improved relationship with their child by asking more open-ended questions and being less critical of what they said."

Parents in the focus group were also encouraged to provide a quiet area for their children to work in at home, and to keep a watch on how much homework pupils were actually doing. Those parents who felt a personal contact had developed with teaching staff were more likely to make efforts to assist the child's learning.

But among problems identified by Miss Shiels' study was the difficulty in getting paperwork home to parents to keep them informed: all too often it went astray.

"We don't know what to do about that," says Miss Shiels. "Apart from getting parents to tip their kids upside down . . ."

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