Working together to get the homework done: encouraging parents to carry on motivating children when they reach secondary school. Reva Klein reports how pupils reap benefits
For parents, an invisible wall suddenly materialises when their children enter secondary school, separating, and even alienating, them from the large, unfamiliar, departmentalised institution.
Not only that, but after being more or less up to speed on what their children were doing at key stages 1 and 2 and feeling able to support them in their work, the stakes become progressively higher, the work more difficult, the rules more strict, the deadlines more numerous. Parents'
meetings are often unsatisfying and awkward, children become less communicative, parents become less in tune. The result can be the end of active engagement with their children's education.
If this is bad news for parents and children, it's also bad news for secondary schools. The DfES' 2003 study, The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment, is clear about that impact being "significant", even when social class, maternal education and poverty are taken into account.
And it continues to be important throughout a pupil's schooling, although its influence for older children is more evident in terms of staying on rates and aspirations than in measurable outcomes. So, secondary schools simply can't afford to keep their parents outside the learning loop.
Tearing down those barriers can be hard work and there are different ways of getting through to parents. Derbyshire based ROWA (Read On-Write Away) coordinates a project throughout the local education authority to improve literacy and basic skills in and out of school. Karen Hanson, manager with responsibility for family learning, invites parents of children in Years 6, 7 and 8 into their schools to work together on ICT. That's the carrot: parents are keen to learn computer skills that they lag behind in.
Sitting in a gleaming new computer suite, they are the ingenues and the children are there to show them the ropes. Once they've acquired some skills in after-school sessions or Saturday mornings, the focus shifts to parent-only sessions, showing them how they can help support children in their homework. They are shown how to use school websites and the internet.
Ms Hanson says: "Then it's joint work using PowerPoint, doing animations, photography, presentations. At first, the kids are very `no, don't touch that. You do it like this'. But after a few weeks, the parents have grown more confident."
Throughout, the parents are encouraged to work together with their children at home, especially on literacy and numeracy, and are given glossaries for ICT and project ideas to do at home.
"The key," says Ms Hanson, "is to bring them together in schools and at home, communicating in a shared context and exploring and learning together."
A different approach with a similar aim has been developed by Jill Wadham, an advanced skills teacher at Camborne science and community college, Cornwall. She has been leading her school's initiative in engaging parents in their children's learning, using the Learning to Learn model.
She has devised a programme geared to the local community. "We start off talking to parents about how vital it is to communicate positive attitudes to their children about learning and school. Parents who have had bad experiences at school tend to have children who perpetuate those experiences because the parents will have repeatedly talked about how `useless' they were at maths or how `you can't trust teachers' or how they used to hate going to school."
Central to Camborne's approach is offering parents experiences that are fun as well as challenging to draw them into school. "We've found that you can't just invite parents to come into school and expect them to show up.
You've got to provide `bait', opportunities that don't sound educational."
The school regularly lays on telly-inspired evening events called Scrapheap Challenge, I'm a Celebrity, Let Me In and Ready, Steady, Cook. All of which involve mixed teams of parents, teachers and pupils working together, having fun, doing activities that tax their ingenuity.
Once the barriers have been broken down, or at least breached, the parents are offered more "serious" events to attend, such as how to motivate children, with a continued emphasis on active learning and having a good time. "We'll do role plays and use music to show how language and gestures are important in communicating a positive attitude to learning."
For some parents, the most daunting activity the school provides is the chance to sit in on some of their children's lessons. "We had one mother who broke down in tears before going into her son's maths class, saying she was `rubbish' at maths when she was at school, she was nervous to enter the room," says Ms Wadham. Once she had sat in the class for 10 minutes and took in the informal tone and colourful environment of the classroom, her jitters disappeared.
If parents are getting insights into their children's learning and in how they can help them, the children and their teachers gain from the experience, too. The 11 and 12-year-olds are still excited about being in secondary school and enjoy their parents coming in. The Year 9s and 10s aren't initially so delighted with the idea, but quickly get over it and come to enjoy showing off in front of Mum or Dad. For the teachers, says Jill Wadham, there are benefits, too. "It makes us think about the way we're presenting lessons and how our teaching is coming over."
The ultimate aim of all these activities is to help parents to help their children. To clarify that their job is not to do the work for them, there are sessions that offer guidance on general approaches to help and motivate pupils with their coursework assignments, revision and so on. And if they are too zealous in their help? "Teachers can always tell if parents are doing the work."
An 11 per cent A*-C GCSE improvement rate among those pupils whose parents are involved in the programme at Camborne indicate that the strategy is effective. But, warns Jill Wadham, it's by no means a quick fix strategy.
"This kind of thing doesn't happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and a lot of persuading some parents of what we're doing. And what we're doing is essentially saying to them: `come into school like you did before, when your children were younger. They need your support now just as they did before. Don't abandon them just because they're now in secondary'."
* Draw parents and carers (including grandparents) in by making person to person contact at parents' meetings, on the phone, at any available opportunity. Assign a friendly, charismatic member of staff to chivvy them up.
* Encourage their participation with events that are interactive, fun and not too off-puttingly serious. Dialogue and shared experiences are vital.
* Offer clear guidance on how they can help their children, with easy to understand hand-outs, for example: look through your child's coursework: does it have an introduction and a conclusion? Is the pie chart clearly labelled?
* Run sessions on what examiners are looking for, how assessment works, effective revision techniques. Show them examples of successful coursework and exams.
The National Strategies have two DVDs for every secondary school to use with parents. The latest one, The Learning Challenge, features parents from Darwen Vale high school in Blackburn, Lancashire, who show how best to help children with homework, revision, thinking skills, and making connections between subjects.
The Campaign for Learning has a family section on its website to help schools set up partnerships with parents. www.campaignforlearning.org.uk
The Guide to Organising Family Learning Events is part of a toolkit developed by Effective Partnerships with Parents, aimed at schools. From Southgate Publications:
FAMILY HERITAGE PROJECT
Using primary schools as models on how to reach out to parents can be eye-opening for secondary schools.
The City Lit runs numerous family learning sessions in three London boroughs. At Sir John Cass's foundation primary in Aldgate, east London, where a large proportion of children come from the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere in the developing world, City Lit's Teresa Donoghue, who is in charge of family learning, has devised a programme of activities run during the school day and on Saturday mornings.
The emphasis is on fun and creativity and on boosting speech, literacy and ICT skills.
One activity, the family heritage project, involves children and their parents focusing on their home cultures. Parents put cherished memories of their past lives into a shoebox, including playground songs and rhymes, instructions on how to play games they played as kids, stories of their childhood, including sensory memories.
They also have to write down 10 things that they used to do that they don't do anymore and are encouraged to tell their children stories about their past. "There can be a huge gap between parents' and children's literacy and numeracy and ICT," says Teresa. "Here we incorporate things that will help parents understand what their children are learning and help them at the same time."