The Issue: Engaging families - Parents now seen as key partners in raising standards

7th November 2008 at 00:00
There's more to getting families involved than parents' evening and PTAs. Today, schools see them as an important resource for improving pupils' achievement, writes Judith Judd

Parents are the key to narrowing the gap between pupils who achieve and those who do not. The evidence is overwhelming. Now the debate about how to engage them is entering a new phase.

This summer, a Cabinet Office report on public services called for a stronger partnership between the professions and citizens. In its foreword, the Prime Minister argued that people should have opportunities to do more for themselves. After a decade in which the focus had been on the relationship between government and professions, attention should turn to that between the professions and the public.

In education, the Every Child Matters strategy is central to this thinking. The hunt is on for a way to harness communities to raise standards. The National College of School Leadership (NCSL) will host a seminar next month (which will also be online) about public values to examine the difference schools can make to communities. It will hear how some remarkable schools and children's centres have involved parents in their work.

The nature of parental involvement is changing, says Maggie Farrar, strategic director of policy, research and development at the NCSL. Schools are moving away from the idea that working with parents is about parents' evenings, parent-teacher associations or parenting skills classes, towards seeing parents as partners and a resource.

"This is at the heart of the 21st century school," she says. "There is still a long way to go but some schools are really getting this.

"School leaders feel they have a moral responsibility to raise standards across their community and that means working as partners."

Recent research for the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust shows that parental engagement outweighs the effect of the school in determining pupils' success. Professor Alma Harris, pro director of leadership development at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning, who carried out the research, says: "It is a very powerful lever for raising achievement. However, it is underutilised by many schools.

"Parental engagement in the home is the major thing that affects achievement. Parental involvement in school may be nice but it doesn't have the same impact.

"Parents need to be actively involved in reading, homework, solving maths problems, information technology. Where schools can help is to get parents to take part in parents' classes so that they can help in this way and to show them how important they are.

"Schools need to ask, do parents know they matter? They won't if they are just seen as people who turn up at parents' evenings."

When many schools are struggling to get parents over the threshold, that is a challenge, but research published by NCSL into the effect of the Every Child Matters agenda shows that some headteachers are coming up with radical solutions.

Ms Farrar says: "Heads are realising that you build a partnership by saying, `Come and find out about the new maths curriculum'.

"They are recruiting more parents, students and local people as part of their remodeled workforce and approach to extended services, and this means working with parents and the community as assets and partners in improvement, and not problems to be solved."

Homewood School and Sixth Form Centre in Tenterden, Kent, now has more than 100 "associate staff"; many are former pupils or parents. The school tries to grow its own staff: six former pupils have returned as teachers, librarians and technicians and some are volunteers.

George Green's School in Tower Hamlets, east London, is developing its own support staff. It trains pupil volunteers from the age of 14.

Professor Harris says: "Schools should see parents who work in them as a resource. They are an important way of communicating with the community." Personal contact is key to winning over parents who are hard to reach, she says. "The worst way to communicate with parents is by letter. Electronic communication is more likely to get through. Face-to-face is best."

A project she ran in Nottingham trained lunchtime supervisors to interview parents in the community. Year 10 pupils were trained to interview Year 6. The result was a dialogue between the school and those parents and young people.

Children's centres have led the way in fostering a new relationship with parents. When Maureen Longley became manager of one at Northlands Park in Basildon, Essex, seven years ago, there was only one parent - a teenage mother - on the steering group. She set about winning trust by walking around the park each day with her and other teenage mothers. She asked about the neighbourhood and what they wanted to see. At every stage, she asked parents what they needed and whether they would help to run activities. Now six parents are on the centre's board and there is a waiting list.

The fruits of parental engagement may be difficult to measure but Professor Harris is certain they are there. Teachers, parents and pupils all reported better behaviour in the 50 schools she surveyed.

Ms Farrar believes the benefits spread beyond the school gate. "Engaging parents is a critical part of sustaining improvement. You are creating aspirational communities."

- The NCSL seminar on community cohesion is on November 26


The Compton School, Barnet, north London

Face-to-face contact is the secret to successful engagement with parents, says Louise Taylor (left), a deputy head at The Compton School.

This term, Compton has appointed non-teachers as year managers to deal with behaviour and pastoral care. All but one are parents and all have experience with dealing with young people.

"The year managers are available to make contact with parents at once," Ms Taylor says. "They may be in daily contact with those whose children are causing concern."

They meet them in school or visit them at home if they fail to turn up for meetings. Other strategies the school uses to engage parents include an e- portal with a personal log-in that allows parents to track their children's attendance and academic progress. The Compton also runs a parenting forum where parents can discuss their role and offer each other advice and support.

Parents involved in the e-portal trial say they are confident about accessing the data; some have talked to their children about it. However, Ms Taylor says the school is still monitoring how widely it is used.

The 10-week parenting forum was popular with those who attended it but did not always attract the parents staff hoped to target. "We shall run it again," says Ms Taylor, "but for some parents there is no substitute for personal contact."

Photograph: Michael Crabtree

The Castle Children's Centre, Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Wakefield's Castle centre, where the day care and the nursery have been recognised by Ofsted as outstanding, has built up its strong relationship with parents by listening to them.

Its family support service works with different parents, travellers, those who have difficulty bonding with their children and those whose children find it hard to communicate. The centre also encourages parents to help each other: a coffee morning last month led to a new mutual support group. It also runs classes, such as Maths is Magic, where parents work alongside children.

A credit union at the school helps adults with debts and runs sessions on financial management. They can take their accounts with them to branches at local primary schools when their children move on.

Staff measure their success by the parents who go on to train to work in the creche, the father who stopped offending and the youngsters who no longer need child protection.

Parents are asked regularly what difference the centre has made to them: a mother recently told how her relationship with her children had improved after just three weeks at one of the groups.

Kathy Stevens, the centre's head, says that the attitude of the head or leader is the key to making parents feel welcome. "If you treat people with respect and listen to them and are thoughtful, they will come in. I see us as being accountable to them, not the other way round."

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