Positive relations

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Parents of pupils at North Manchester High School for Girls attend workshops, help with decision-making, and even rewrite documents in plain English.

Girls at the 1,200-pupil school come from areas of north Manchester with high unemployment - 50 per cent have free school meals. Yet, thanks to the efforts of teachers and the Community Association, positive parental involvement is on the increase.

"To improve achievement, you have to take the whole community with you, " says headteacher Jean Gledhill, "the family, the extended family and the wider community."

When she joined the school five years ago, her views on community education alarmed some colleagues. But discussion, negotiation and partnership are the key words rather than authority, conflict and negative accountability. "Our policy is based on listening to each other," she says.

So, under the Successful Schools project, various parental project groups have been set up. One helped draft the school development plan, another rewrote the partnership agreement between parent, student and school. "It's now very much in parent-speak rather than jargon," says Jean Gledhill.

Another group named the evening and daytime workshops - "Lurking in the library" for a session on library usage, "Computers don't byte" for a family computer skills workshop, and "How to be a somebody" for a session on maths.

Among the initiatives developed as "a safe first step for families" were a morning for mothers of Asian pupils - 20 per cent of the school roll - to explain, in their own languages, how the school works, and a celebration for children with special educational needs and their families. Over 100 parents attended the latter event, many of whom had never been into school before, and each child was given a Pounds 5 book token. "As most of them had never been into a bookshop, the bookshop came to them," says Jean Gledhill.

Another initiative that has worked well is their new approach to parents' evenings. "We had everybody in one block and people were very close together. Parents said it was too impersonal and they could overhear conversations. So they worked with teachers to redo it. Now we're spread out, with comfortable seating and space to move round and have private conversations."

As for limitations: "They're about professional judgments, about attainment and the content of what we teach. I came here from a middle-class school where I was used to parents challenging professional judgments. The staff here weren't. The more we teach parents, the more they want to know how we arrive at these judgments."

There is still some way to go, yet she's positive about the impact to date. "'It's difficult to tell whether the project has had an impact on pupil attainment so far, but the signs are there that it is making pupils happier. And the numbers of parents who attend adult education classes continues to grow."

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