Ways to escape the parent trap

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Patricia Denison Answers your leadership questions

I'm a primary headteacher of many years. Just lately it seems more and more of my time is spent in consultation with parents, eroding the time available to do the job. Is this a trend and what can we do about it?

The result of a quick straw poll in my own area seems to confirm your supposition. Colleagues report that parents want time to discuss issues ranging from their child's poor behaviour, reluctance to do homework, bullying and low attainment, to the complexities of their own relationships. These meetings eat into the week, often lasting an hour or more. Heads talk about their time being hijacked and feel frustrated that they are not achieving what they have set out to do.

There is no doubt that schools' relationships with parents are vastly different now. The days when teachers were held in deference, parents didn't set foot in school, automatically assumed the teacher was right, and were generally content if their child attended regularly and came home safely, are long gone.

Over the years we have set out to increase parent participation in school improvement and to tap the rich resource on our doorstep. In primary schools, if we are lucky, parents are a constant presence throughout the day - working alongside teachers to provide support, expertise and a listening ear for children.

We accept that, if our children are to flourish, parents need to know how to help them, so we organise workshops on curriculum, behaviour management and anything else they ask for. We have created a very different culture - that of the school providing an essential service for families.

"Come in," we smile. "We won't just educate your child, we'll let you know exactly how we do it, we'll involve you in the process (making you feel guilty if you aren't), we'll seek your views, measure your levels of satisfaction and respond to your needs."

First, you need to ask yourself whether you do indeed consider that your school should provide such a service, and to whom. Do you believe that parents should have opportunities to engage in fairly sustained discussion with someone who knows their child? It is worth analysing the content of your discussions with parents. Is there a significant weighting towards dissatisfaction with teaching, requests for knowledge, or concerns about behaviour? This could provide you with valuable insights about the school you didn't previously have, and could give you a starting point for action.

Dissatisfaction with teaching needs thorough investigation. Your enquiry will cover observation of learning and teaching, scrutiny of work including marking and feedback, conversations with pupils, and dialogue with the teacher.

You now have the big picture which will allow you to make a judgment.

Always come back to the parent with your findings and planned action. This can be done without blame; you will simply outline the action you are going to take with reference to their child.

Recurrent requests for knowledge tell you that the school needs to improve its communication system. How do you let parents know what their child is expected to learn, what will be taught, how they can help and so on? Get a working party to review this and include parents on it.

Concerns about behaviour will probably confirm what you already know. Are there pockets of poor behaviour within some groups of children, or is it a general, whole school issue? Is it linked to specific causes - poor awareness of diversity of culture, racism, covert bullying? Is it linked to poor teaching? Follow a trail of evidence and plan your action.

Finally, you need to find out why parents are consulting you and not their child's teacher. Do they complain of not being listened to? Are they after the cachet of "going to the top"? Have they heard from other parents that you are approachable, always available and ready to listen? Have they found in you a cheap counsellor?

Answers here might lead you to invest in developing your teachers' skills in dealing with parental concerns, not something taught during initial teacher training. Teachers often lack confidence in this area, mistake clear questioning for criticism and consequently appear defensive. Parents pick up on this immediately and avoid subsequent meetings.

It is worth spending money on courses in advanced communication skills so that all staff develop insight into how people tick, how to listen, how to ask the right questions, and how to treat parents as co-educators and not a threat to their professional status.

Making the change from reacting to parental demands to taking pre-emptive, whole-school action to deal with underlying causes should put you back in the driving seat and give you the sense of choice about how you use your time to the best effect.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email pdenison@thevillageschool.demon.co.uk

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