Aspiration is a tricky area for schools to negotiate. Teachers, parents and students all aspire to an end result but they often don't agree on what this should be.
At my school, this is a particular issue for female pupils. The majority of the children are from Pakistani Muslim backgrounds where there are strong expectations that female family members will perform roles around the home. Although some of our parents are ambitious for their daughters, we still have a group of families with low academic expectations of their girls. How do we reach them?
Mothers are the way in. We often find that their own aspirations were curtailed by family expectations. "I didn't have the opportunity, but I'm going to make sure it's different for my daughter," they say.
To help us build on mothers' aspirations, we work with the charity Mosaic. Founded by the Prince of Wales, Mosaic inspires young people from deprived communities to realise their talents and potential. Its mentoring programme is a perfect fit for us, as it not only raises the aspirations of Muslim girls but also empowers their mothers.
The programme consists of 10 weekly, hour-long sessions for mothers and another 10 for daughters. The girls explore issues such as confidence, communication and role models, while the mothers look at topics including citizenship and understanding British education. To complement the sessions, mothers and daughters are provided with resource booklets that they can refer to throughout the course and beyond. And a university visit, hosted by student ambassadors, provides exposure to further education. Mothers and daughters are invited to a prominent university to participate in workshops, a tour of the campus and a presentation about university life.
The scheme also brings in professional women from the community to act as mentors and role models, inspiring students to pursue careers in a range of sectors.
The impact on our school has been huge: confidence has increased and aspirations have been raised. There is a real eagerness among mothers to support and engage their daughters in long-term education.
So, how can you do the same in your school? Here are some practical tips on making a programme like this work.
Focus on initial engagement
Enthuse the girls about the project - their enjoyment and appreciation will help to persuade their mothers to join. The obvious pleasure the girls receive from sharing one-to-one time with a parent can really give momentum to the programme.
Fit sessions around the family
Many mothers are often tied up after school hours, taking children to the mosque for religious lessons and preparing the evening meal. Run mothers' sessions during the day, preferably timing them to finish at the end of school. Provide a crche so that preschool children can be cared for during the session.
We struggled to maintain attendance over the weeks. Many mothers are not used to going to regular meetings or classes, and start times for events in our community are often flexible. We found that ringing parents on the morning of the lesson helped to keep the numbers up.
Address mothers' aspirations
Limits have often been placed on the mothers' own aspirations and they may lack the confidence to put themselves forward. Encourage them to speak out in the sessions, sharing what they were good at when they were young. Helping these women to remember their own ambitions often results in them wanting to support their daughters' aspirations.
Raise literacy skills
Mothers' spoken and written English may be limited, but mentors who speak the same language can help with communication. Filling in the handbooks together, or talking through the questions rather than writing answers, empowers everyone.
Organise a university visit
Understand and address family concerns about girls attending university. Talk about the level of cultural understanding and the support services available for students. Share statistics on how many university students are from similar backgrounds and the variety of courses they are studying; we want parents to know that plenty of Muslim girls go to university. Finally, make sure the visit caters for the presence of young siblings.
This programme was a huge success for us. Not only did it help girls to feel more confident and to speak about what they wanted for their lives but it enabled their mothers to grow in confidence, using skills they didn't even know they had.
The writer is a primary headteacher in the West Midlands
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