Use the pupils to tell your message
Every day in the media, politicians pontificate about falling standards in education and parents are bombarded with statements that cause them to lose confidence in schools. Trust is further shaken by their children's reports of what they learn in a day's schooling. Over the years, when my own children have been pupils in my classes, I have been surprised at the end of busy days to hear them telling their father that they've done nothing all day.
Children's perceptions of what teachers do in school relay equally disturbing messages to concerned parents. Recently, a colleague, hard pressed with some thorny administrative task, asked an infant who was anxious to see him to wait outside his office because he was very busy. He later heard the infant confidentially sharing this information with a visitor outside his room: "I'm afraid you'll have to wait. The head-teacher's very busy. I think he's colouring in."
One of the most important and difficult jobs of a headteacher is to reassure parents that standards in schools are being maintained and even improved, and that education lies in the hands of skilled and committed professionals. This is important, because trust between pupil, parent and teacher in a working relationship has been shown to improve children's learning radically.
It is also difficult, because parents' ideas about how their children learn seldom fit the reality. For example, it seems obvious that there is a body of facts that children should know; that teachers should tell children these and thus educate them. But what facts should be taught is only one problem; a greater is that children quickly forget what they are told.
However, when we try to tell parents how children learn, we encounter similar problems. Assuming that letters about their children's education ever survive the murky depths of schoolbags, the parents, like the children, just don't stay told. They remain understandably puzzled and uncertain about what is going on in schools.
As a newly appointed headteacher, I sent out a series of carefully crafted letters explaining the curriculum and methods used in the school. This was to be an inclusive school - however, I quickly realised that the letters were pointless. Dutiful parents read them and forgot them.
I next tried evening workshops, organising learning opportunities for the loyal 10 or 11 Parent Teachers' Association and school board members who attended. When I complained about the low attendance to colleagues, they congratulated me on the excellent turn-out, reminding me that most parents were busy in the evenings, cooking, reading, seeing to homework and putting children to bed.
Though I knew that parents wanted to be better informed, finding the right time and the appropriate method was very difficult.
I finally realised that parents come most willingly to the school when their children are performing in some way. They arrive, prepared to listen to what their children have to communicate. From this realisation sprang the interactive open days that we now organise.
On these occasions, through slide and video shows, workshops and conducted tours, children teach adults about the curriculum they have studied throughout the year, and demonstrate modern teaching approaches through the methods that they employ.
The next open day will be in June, when the school opens as a "heritage centre". There will be a menu of events and a map showing the location of learning stations around the school. Every child will be part of a team that teaches at a learning station. The infants, who have been studying sheep farming, will share interesting trips with farms with the help of photographs. They will teach visitors the art of paper weaving, how to make felted brooches and bookmarks, and demonstrate maths prowess when charging for milk shakes and biscuits at the milk bar. After visiting, guests will be invited to complete evaluation sheets, which will have been produced by the children on computer.
The middle and upper school pupils will involve parents and visitors in a study of Scottish Wars of Independence. There will be a Wars of Independence slide show, featuring hand-painted slides and a script written by the children. There will be opportunities for predicting and testing the performance of siege weapons designed by young technologists.
In a bookbinding workshop, adults will be taught how to illuminate letters and make padded books, featuring pupils' poetry. They will be invited to sample crepes at the French Speakers' Cafe and join in a computer information handling workshop.
Besides introducing parents and community into the methods of modern education, interactive open days allow children to consolidate their own learning, by teaching others. Purpose and audience are found for children's work and they are given opportunities for presenting ideas and answering questions. The experience gives children a sense of their importance at the centre of the community. Praise for the school from adults on evaluation sheets and in letters convinces the children and staff that our work is better understood and highly valued.
Gill Friel is headteacher of Fintry Primary School, Stirling