How to pack parents in

17th November 2006 at 00:00
Luring mums and dads into school to see what children are learning is tough, but one primary achieved the remarkable. Douglas Blane reports

THE CHILDREN are a captive audience, but getting their parents through the gates can be hard work. So when Hermitage Primary in Helensburgh, which has a roll of about 400, recently attracted 600 visitors in one evening, it was quite an achievement.

"They were queuing up to get in," says Lorna Jackson, the headteacher of one of Argyll and Bute's biggest primary schools. "They weren't all parents, of course; there were grandparents too."

So how can a school make itself so appealing that hundreds of people will pay for tickets in advance at pound;2 each or stand in line on a fresh October evening for the opportunity to get in?

"Our aim was to showcase what the kids were doing and what Hermitage Primary is about," says Ms Jackson. "So we took as our theme 'communication'."

Interpreting this broadly and creatively, pupils and staff devised displays and workshops that would be fun as well as informative. The infants contributed a poetry book and an art message competition. The middle school compiled a book of their own stories. The P7s wrote and edited a newspaper.

"They had a full page article on Walter Smith, the Scotland football manager," says Ms Jackson. "Two of the P7s just phoned him up and he gave them an appointment to interview him."

Other scoops and innovations included workshops on sign language, a demonstration of digital handsets, particularly for children with additional needs, webcams around the school, a Native American storyteller and a workshop by two naval officers on how ships communicate at sea. "It went down really well," says Ms Jackson. "They still use semaphore and lights, it seems, but not for whole messages nowadays. Instead, they send details of the radio channel they're going to use, so other people can't listen in."

Information technology featured strongly, with contributions from Scotsys on webcams and Oracle on "They flew up from London to deliver the workshop," says Ms Jackson.

"Those two didn't cost us anything, nor did the Navy, but we had to pay for some workshop leaders. The total cost came to about pound;3,500, when you include the good quality publishing of books and newspapers."

"We made it all back and more, through selling tickets and things the kids had made, plus some Determined to Succeed money from the authority. We charged 50p a workshop, for instance, and visitors could attend three of those on the night."

The aim was not fund-raising, however, but communication, with parents and the wider community. This was true, too, last year, when the theme of a similar evening organised by Ms Jackson and the staff was art.

"You might imagine that having to pay would put people off, but it's the opposite, I think. If it's free, people don't value it; if they pay, it becomes a special event.

"I do think it would work in other schools. We have leafy suburbs here, but overall it's a mixed catchment area, and the parents who came reflected that."

One of the most popular features on the night was a social and refreshment area, not hidden away but in the main hall, says Ms Jackson. "Busy parents don't always have time to come to the school gate and catch up with the news. This gave them that opportunity.

"They liked it so much we'll probably build in extra time between workshops next year to give them more chance to chat.

"I've got several ideas for a theme," says Ms Jackson, "but I'm not talking about them now. That would spoil the surprise!"

Top tips to get them in

Form an events team and prepare well in advance.

Decide on a clear focus.

Involve all staff and senior pupils on the night.

Provide interesting events, and space and time for parents to talk.

Provide workshop details and a map of the event, so parents can plan their evening.

Make it fun as well as informative.

Inform people well in advance - through newsletter, posters, the local press.

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