Power to the parents
Eight mothers and one father have gone back to school. Sitting at computers in the information technology room at Sutton Centre community college in Nottinghamshire, their task is to create a poster for a bedroom door.
A fortnight ago they looked at ethical issues surrounding children and computers. This week it's hands-on. "I do this with the children to incite their enthusiasm," says tutor Chris Bentley. "It could say 'The World's Greatest Footballer', or 'Knock Twice and Wait'."
"This is the easy bit?" asks one incredulous mother trying to bring a picture of a cartoon animal on screen. "I don't give the children this much help, " replies Chris Bentley.
The computer workshops are part of the Parents as Co-Educators project being run at Sutton Centre, in the former mining town of Sutton-in-Ashfield. PACE is itself part of the two-year Successful Schools project run by the Community Education Development Centre in response to a Government drive to improve educational standards by involving parents at secondary level.
Lisa Capper is education development manager at CEDC, and is running regional seminars about the Successful Schools project. "It's a very simple approach, " she says, "but a really challenging area for schools. It's easy to see the obvious barriers to involving parents in secondary schools - for example, class and cultural differences, school bureaucracy and traditional passive parental involvement in areas such as volunteering and fund raising - but it's the hidden barriers, which are much more difficult to tackle, that this project aims to get through. We want to get parents directly involved in their child's learning, at school and at home.
"One of the myths we exploded," she adds, "is that many secondary school pupils don't want their parents involved because it's embarrassing. Our evidence shows that pupils want parents to know what they're doing in school, how good they are at a subject, and how parents can help with homework."
Sutton Centre is one of nine schools in seven local education authority areas to participate in the project. Sutton Centre's deputy head Mike Wilkinson says PACE is related to raising achievement among the 800 students. "We have spent eight years working on ways of raising achievement, such as target-setting and mentoring. And we climbed from a low base of 11 to 12 per cent of five A-C GCSEs - in a school that is in a fairly deprived area - up to the mid-20s. Then we plateaued. So we were looking at longer-term strategies in literacy and numeracy. And work-ing with parents is part of that."
The school therefore enrolled the help of Linda Orchard, a former home-school liaison counsellor who is doing a PhD in educational psychology at Nottingham Trent University.
The workshops, which started as a small pilot project among Year 7 parents, are two-fold in their approach - academic and practical. Linda Orchard evaluates parental feedback forms after each workshop and assesses whether parents really can make a difference in raising standards of achievement, in both behaviour and learning.
"Achievement is closely linked with motivation," she says, "which is closely linked with positive relationships, including with parents, and self-esteem. So if you introduce parenting skills, you're getting into the routes of self-confidence, social skills and achievement."
And she relates one pupil's comment: "I feel more clever because my mum's coming to school."
The school decided parents could particularly contribute in areas of specific rote learning, so the workshops look at strategies for helping with maths, spelling and reading as well as at using the library, and looking at self-motivation and personal organisation, and behavioural issues.
Perhaps inevitably, many of those participating have children with learning difficulties; about 40 per cent of Sutton's Year 7s are behind in reading ages and 300 students overall have specific learning difficulties.
Julie Wilson's son, Kyle, is one of them. "At primary school we had a lot of contact. When they go up to secondary school you can lose that." She has attended every workshop. "We've seen videos about children's behaviour and how parents react. It makes you realise that shouting isn't the right approach.
"Also, teachers have told us ways of doing things better. Like, when a child asks you to spell a word, instead of just telling them, it's better to get them to look the word up for themselves, to see what it looks like."
And what does Kyle think? "He realises I'm doing this for him," replies Julie Wilson, "so he wants to give something back. His reading and spelling are improving."
Back at the computer workshop for parents, Jane Bond is creating a dragon poster bearing the words "Enter At Your Own Risk". "This is empowering, " she says. The poster is for her 15-year-old son Josh, who is dyslexic. Her daughter, Kate, is in Year 7. "With Kate, who's shy, the information we've brought has improved her confidence and motivation, and she's more analytical now. It has helped Josh with information about dyslexia. And it's been good for us to exchange ideas with other parents.
"The most valuable session," Jane Bond adds, "was about homework, because this is an area of concern for parents, especially if your child has learning difficulties. Now the school is taking our feedback to senior management and looking at the effect of homework on children. It's good to know that they're listening to what we're saying. We're getting help from them, but they're taking our views into account as well."
All these responses please Mike Wilkinson. "We wanted to give parents information about what we're doing, to demystify the secondary curriculum. Because, during the pilot, we received comments from parents like 'I want to help him with maths but I don't want to do it wrong'."
As a community college, Sutton Centre also has 2,000 adults, "So we're also looking at ways in which we can draw parents into the process of their own education. Many of them are in their late 20s and early 30s, which can often be a crucial time for rethinking learning."
In addition, the school is creating booklets to help parents address issues with their children. And it is setting up a homework helpline for parents. "It's too early for a statistical analysis of the potential raising of children's performance," says Mike Wilkinson. "But we've had feedback from tutors and teachers that is very positive. They say the children are better organised or making better progress in spelling. But there are no quick victories here. It's a long-term process."
Linda Orchard agrees. "This is just a starting point. We're now looking to involve all parents, to make school more accessible. We see this as tackling disaffection. By helping parents to achieve, you're helping children to achieve."
The CEDC guide to best practice 'Successful Schools - parental involvement in secondary schools' is available from the CEDC, price Pounds 9.95 plus Pounds 1 pp, at Woodway Park School, Wigston Road, Coventry CV2 2RH