How to get parents onside with schools

10th September 2004 at 01:00
The Scottish Executive's campaign to improve home-school links has been dismissed by the national parents' body as patronising, but not everyone agrees. Douglas Blane reports

One of the few certainties in politics is that you can't please all the people all the time. So when the Scottish Executive announced a drive to involve parents more in their children's education, some dissent was probably expected.

Sure enough, among largely positive responses from parents and teachers, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council has been castigating the Education Minister for patronising parents and placing ever increasing pressure on them.

"Education is changing but the bottom line is teachers are paid to teach," said Jennifer Stewart, director of the council. "Teachers chose the career of teaching our children I Teachers should be allowed to teach, parents should be allowed to parent."

Beverley Gardiner, a mother of two teenagers in East Renfrewshire, says: "I just feel politicians are lecturing us on how to be good parents when we know they're not great at it themselves.

"I'm all for parents and schools listening to each other and forming a partnership. The more that can be fostered, the greater the benefits to the children. But it has to be driven forward in a way that doesn't get people's backs up."

The Scottish Executive's reply last week was forthright. "We are more interested in the views of ordinary parents. Those parents we met at the launch of the initiative did not say they felt patronised."

This demonstrates that the initiative is not so much about getting active parents more involved as about encouraging the active involvement of more parents.

East Renfrewshire is one authority that has addressed the issue over recent years.

"I went on a course on practical skills for parents run by East Renfrewshire, says Lorraine Edgar, mother of three children in primary school. "It was excellent and it's something I'd like to see made available to all parents. The problem is you go to these things - courses, workshops, PTA meetings - and you see the same set of parents every time.

"I think it's about confidence as much as anything. You're maybe a bit nervous about going but when you get there you learn other people have the same concerns, the same worries about their children's behaviour and education as you do. That's very reassuring.

"I think that if a lot of parents who don't get involved came along once, they would come again."

Alan McGinlay, headteacher at Mearns Castle High in Newton Mearns, does not believe parents who already help their children will do more because of the latest initiative. "Hopefully what it might do is encourage some parents who in the past have not been so involved.

"I can understand what the SPTC is saying: good parents are doing this already. But clearly this is aimed at the whole parent body. If it encourages only some parents to do things differently and get involved in their child's education more than before, that can only be good."

Much of the initiative is aimed not directly at parents but at schools, which too many parents find daunting and unwelcoming places, staffed with teachers who can barely spare them 10 minutes on parents' evening to discuss the year's progress of their child.

Mr McGinlay regards good communication with parents as central to the ethos of his school. "If you ask what makes Mearns Castle High special and successful, as much as anything it is about partnership with parents," he says.

"Teachers don't need to be concerned with the minutiae of people's lives but we don't mind being bothered with small problems. A small problem not dealt with can become a crisis later.

"What I don't want is a parent saying: 'This has been building up for the past three months but I didn't want to bother you with it.'

"You have to listen to parents, to show them their views are valued.

Sometimes that means explaining why some things can't be done."

Helen Glen, headteacher at Springhill Primary in Barrhead, for the past 12 years, takes a similar view.

"I tell my parents they shouldn't just talk to each other at the school gate; they should come in and talk to us. Second-hand answers, like somebody else's medicine, probably won't work.

"Any parent who comes to you with a problem has had to mull it over, worry about it, figure out how and when they will speak to you. The last thing they need after all that is to come in to school and be met with a frosty face."

Like her secondary colleague, Ms Glen emphasises the importance of persuading parents that talking early about anxieties is better than waiting until a major problem has developed. Often the dialogue is enough in itself, and further action is neither necessary nor desirable.

Schools can and should take advantage of every available channel of communication, believes Mr McGinlay, including email, the school website, newsletters and parents' responses to them. Every bit as important are the spontaneous, unplanned meetings that happen every day.

"Our senior management team is out in the car park and the bus park in the mornings and at the end of the day. For me the informal communication and networking that goes on at those times is a crucial part of the business of engaging with parents."

However, as the SPTC has pointed out, teachers are paid to teach and time spent talking to parents might be better spent in the classroom educating children. Time is one resource that is always scarce in schools.

"True, you can't knit time," says Ms Glen. "But right now kids are settling in with new class teachers and routines. If you make an effort to get it right now, you will save a lot more time later."

Homework is one of the most common reasons for stressful but essential contact between home and school. Springhill Primary's approach is to encourage communications and sidestep conflict.

"If children are not doing their homework it's usually a symptom of other issues," says Ms Glen. "I tell parents to put a note in the homework diary.

And I tell our teachers not to make an issue of it. When the problems in the child's life are sorted out, they will come back on board with their homework.

"We run workshops for parents at school, focusing on the curriculum and raising our open door policy. We try to get the message across that if children are struggling with something in school - homework, peers, whatever - then we need to talk about it.

"The more you encourage parents to come into school and get to know you, the more you build their confidence to come again. We may not have all the answers, but we will try."

Creating a receptive culture in all schools and convincing parents they are welcome is one of the main thrusts of the Scottish Executive's initiative.

A centrally-funded research project is being conducted by Aberdeen University to identify schools involving parents successfully. The examples of good practice will be collated and made available to schools and parents on CD-Rom and the internet late next year.

To help improve dialogue with parents about children's education and progress, the Assessment is for Learning project that Learning and Teaching Scotland is working on is encouraging teachers to move away from summative to formative assessment.

Meanwhile, Strathclyde University is preparing a series of parent-friendly leaflets giving practical advice on how to become better involved in children's education. Topics include building on what is learnt in class, supporting homework, and getting the best from parents' evenings.

"We're asking parents what they would like to know more about," says a Scottish Executive spokesman. "The range of topics will be decided with their help."

These three projects are just part of the broad strategy. "We are keen that schools and parents come up with ideas and activities suitable to their own local circumstances," says the spokesman.

"A lot of educational policies coming on stream in the next year or so will have a much stronger parental emphasis. The curriculum review currently underway will include helping parents help their children make subject choices. The testing and assessment changes to be announced in October will have a focus on involving parents more with their children's progress.

"This is not just a series of isolated announcements. The parental theme will run through everything the Executive does in terms of children's education."

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