Parent power gets better results

4th January 2008 at 00:00
Teachers are are under increased pressure to build a closer relationship with families. Jennifer Beckles visits schools leading the way.

Deep in thought, rows of tiny heads earnestly try to work out an answer to the question. "I had 10 cubes, now I have six," explains Jackie Gwatkin, who is special projects co-ordinator at Argyle Primary in St Pancras, London, "so how many have I hidden?"

The answers are as diverse as the backgrounds of the Year 1 pupils, who come from Kosovo, Bangladesh and Somalia. "10!" "Three!" and finally, "Four!"

The exercise proves to the attentive parents who surround them that learning about numbers is not as straightforward as they might think.

Parents and children gather for family sessions at the school every week. Together they take part in fun activities covering key aspects of literacy and numeracy.

"Parents find out how to support their child's development - for example, practical activities such as cooking reinforce numeracy development," said Ms Gwatkin, a qualified primary school teacher. "But it's not just about learning. Children from large families, who don't get much attention at home, have the chance to spend some quality time with their parent."

The very first principle of the Government's new Children's Plan is that "government does not bring up children - parents do".

The 10-year strategy contains proposals designed to promote closer working between teachers and parents (see panel, above).

Laura Wynne, head of Argyle Primary, said the school had always regarded working with parents as crucial. "Parental involvement, particularly for younger children, has a greater impact on a child's achievement and life chances than school itself," she said.

Her view is backed by plentiful research. Academics at University College London and the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance have examined the results of 7- to 16-year-olds. They found that parental involvement in their education had a more powerful effect than their social background, the size of their family, or even the level of their parents' education.

Ed Balls, Education Secretary, said: "We know that the involvement of parents in their child's education is of crucial importance, but levels of involvement remain low, particularly in secondaries."

The Engagement of Parents in Raising Achievement (Epra) scheme, a Government initiative to improve links between schools and families, has investigated what puts families off. It found that the chief reasons parents gave for not getting involved included work commitments, childcare needs and a lack of skills.

The Lewis School in Pengam, Wales, has tackled the first two problems by giving parents greater choice of when they attend parent-teacher meetings.

Attendance has improved dramatically since it scrapped evening sessions and reworked its timetable so parents could choose any time on a chosen day to meet their child's tutor.

But Christopher Howard, headteacher, said he felt that secondary schools would always find building connections with parents trickier than primaries.

"Secondary schools serve a wider catchment area, so the proportion of families who live nearby is smaller than that of a local primary school," he said. "And children often travel to school independently, which means that you don't have the 'school gate phenomenon', where parents meet teachers in the playground before and after school."

Other schools are giving parents the confidence and skills to assist their children's learning.

Oaklands Secondary in Bethnal Green, London, runs classes for parents on literacy, numeracy and science, as well as a general course on how to help children learn.

Janice Fuller, assistant head, said: "The course covers essential things such as how to engage children in learning by making it interactive, fun and by making use of the environment.

"The end result is that children are happy, love school, and learning is now embraced in the home."

Research shows that children overwhelmingly value parents' moral support and interest in their learning. "If parents weren't interested, then you wouldn't be," one pupil told researchers.

The Epra research suggests that parents' engagement in their children's learning is different from - and more important than - their direct involvement in schools.

Talking to children and supporting them in their learning is more effective than manning a stall at a school summer fair, valuable though that is.

Most teachers appreciate the value of parent partnerships. But they can face difficulties if they, too, are parents.

Mrs Wynne said: "Teachers work a long week and have so many demands on their time. It's difficult to find time to help with homework and often I need to make up time at the weekend to do this. But teachers know it is important, so we do it."

Diana Oladuti, a secondary school teacher, had to miss her seven-year-old son Antonio's Christmas play because she could not take time off.

"The job of teaching comes before life," she said. "I often resent the fact that, as a teacher, I am looking after other people's children, but unwillingly neglecting my own."

Home Goals: A blueprint for involving families

The Children's Plan sets out a series of goals for creating a "new relationship between parents and schools". It plans to consult families and will publish more details later on how it will achieve these goals. Some are already standard practice, while others may require legislation:

- Every child will have a book recording his or her education progress from early years to primary school.

- Parents will be contacted by a staff member at secondary school before their child begins to attend.

- Every child will have a personal tutor to act as a main contact for parents.

- Parents will have regular, up-to-date information on their child's attendance, behaviour and progress in learning.

- Parent councils will ensure that parents' voices are heard within schools.

- Parents' complaints will be managed in a straightforward and open way.

- pound;30 million will be spent over the next three years on providing more family learning to help parents develop skills and learn with their children in schools.

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