Walking and talking
THE PROSPECT of giving up a precious Saturday morning lie-in to knock on doors inviting criticism from parents might not seem that appealing.
But as they are briefed, staff from Hillcrest school and community college at Netherton in the West Midlands seem to be relishing the challenge. "It just feels right," says headteacher John Bateson as he collects his list of four addresses to visit. "We do talk to parents but better still, we need to listen to them. And that's what we're going to do this morning."
The object of Hillcrest's first "Walk for Success" is simple - to visit the homes of every child in Year 7 in one Saturday morning. Working in pairs, school staff and volunteers from community action group Citizens aim to find out what parents want for their child, and how teachers can help them achieve those ambitions.
Like other Black Country towns, Netherton is an area of high unemployment and often low expectations of the education system. Hillcrest's five A to C GCSE passes have risen from 12 to 25 per cent in the past two years, but there is still a way to go. Many parents never set foot in the school - another reason to go and visit them instead.
Mr Bateson's first stop is the home of Andrew Pearson. His arrival interrupts the television viewing of Andrew's older sisters, but his parents Jackie and Geoff seem comfortable with the visit. He asks: "What would you like Andrew to be and to achieve, and what sort of a person do you want him to be when he leaves us in five years?" Geoff Pearson is clear. "I'm not one of these people who thinks you should put pressure on your kids to do a certain thing just because you didn't do it yourself, but I suppose I'd like him to have a skill to fall back on."
In their 15-minute conversation, they touch on the importance of qualifications, Andrew's enthusiasm for football and Jackie's concerns about the groups of children who gather on Netherton's streets most nights. "They can be really quite intimidating but it's only because they've got no entertainment. We need more youth clubs, because not all the kids are interested in sport like Andrew."
After promising to look into the possibility of more youth provision, Mr Bateson walks a few houses on to the home of twins Adam and Laura Whitehall. Their mother Carol is very pleased to see the headteacher. "To me it really makes me think that you care, and that's what I think you do do, up at school," she says.
However, Carol Whitehall admits she has not always felt that way. "I did have my doubts about the school. But then Claire, my eldest, said she wanted to go. From the moment she arrived all the doubts were dispelled and I had no hesitation at all in sending the twins there."
Noting her strong views on discipline and concern about the young people hanging around street corners, Mr Bateson leaves for his next address.
At midday, the volunteers regroup after visiting more than 120 homes. It is too early to identify clear themes, but bullying, homework and special needs support were all discussed.
"There was one man who was unemployed and had a bad time in his education and he was determined the same wouldn't happen to his son," one teacher says. A Citizens volunteer talks about the importance of going beyond traditional home-school links: "It's not just about joining the PTA or sending them newsletters; it's about really engaging them so they are actively involved."
Not all the parents were "on message": one boasted about his bad behaviour and "bunking off" in full earshot of his children. But teachers hope more parents will become involved in school, and plan to use their comments to improve education at Hillcrest.
"I'd like to double our GCSE passes all over again and to do that we need the parents to know us, trust us, believe in the school and the children. That's what we've made a start on today," Mr Bateson says.
Government officials are already taking an interest in the work of Hillcrest and other schools around Dudley. Many of their ideas followed a visit by teachers, volunteers and the local training and enterprise council to Texas, where "sink" schools had seen big improvements after similar community-based work. The ideas are adapted, but the emphasis on finding common ground with parents seems to be working on both sides of the Atlantic.
Kate Harrison is the education correspondent for BBC West Midlands.