Why parents will soon be showing who's boss

6th March 2015 at 00:00
Community groups to choose school goals under radical scheme

Parents could have unprecedented levels of influence over their children's schools under a radical US programme that is set to be rolled out across Scotland.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) this week announced ambitious plans to introduce the "partnership schools" model to more than 600 schools over the next six years, with pilots planned this year in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Angus.

Under the programme, parents are invited to form "action teams" and work with teachers to set targets for the year, including academic goals. Parents with expertise in specific subjects are encouraged to help in class, as well as assisting with non-academic targets such as improving behaviour.

Supporters of the programme in the US say it has helped schools to capitalise on parents' expertise and has improved attainment and behaviour, particularly in poorer communities.

But the general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) has warned it could be "problematic" if parents are given direct control over how schools are run.

In partnership schools, the action teams - which can also encompass pupils, further education colleges, employers, religious representatives and other community groups - are formed at the start of each school year and decide on four targets. These comprise two academic goals, one non-academic ambition and one target specifically designed to help create "a welcoming school climate".

Parents' expertise may drive targets (a maths professor's involvement could lead to a focus on numeracy, for example) but they would have to take into account the priorities listed in the school's improvement plan.

In the US, several schools in the programme have set maths homework that requires students to collaborate with their parents. This has led to significant improvements in poorer neighbourhoods where young people typically struggle with the subject, according to SPTC executive director Eileen Prior.

"We talk a lot about good partnerships between home, school and community but we struggle to make it a reality," she said. "A lot of schools say they want to work with families - this is a way of doing it."

Ms Prior added that current Scottish legislation left parent councils with a wide remit and their limited resources could be overstretched, but the new scheme was more targeted, proactive and classroom-orientated.

Parents could contribute a "huge range of skills" from "every walk of life", she said, and this approach would help schools to become a "bit smarter" about enabling pupils to benefit.

Parental involvement was also backed by Carolyn Anstruther, depute headteacher at Sciennes Primary School in Edinburgh. "We regularly utilise the wealth of parent talent to support classroom learning," she said (see panel, below).

SSTA general secretary Seamus Searson said that a partnership between parents and teachers was necessary for pupils to get the maximum benefit from education, but added that involving parents in running a school was "more problematic".

"I am keen that parents have a forum to express their views and hold schools to account but not in the managing or controlling of them," he said.

Mr Searson, previously a union official in England and Northern Ireland, added that governing boards could easily become dominated by a small number of parents and their particular interests, rather than focusing on the welfare of all pupils.

The partnership approach has been used by thousands of US schools since being established in 1996 by Joyce Epstein and her colleagues at the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

Research by Dr Epstein found that closer involvement of families in school life improved attainment, behaviour and attendance. She gave the SPTC's annual lecture in Glasgow this week, at which education secretary Angela Constance was in attendance.

Before the NNPS came into being, the success of parental contributions to school life tended to be "incidental or accidental", Dr Epstein told the audience; since then, the emphasis had been on using evidence to establish what worked.

The launch of the NNPS had also marked a shift away from parents' contributions being restricted to a few enthusiastic individuals, with the involvement of all parents and wider communities now a more natural part of school life, she added.

The partnership schools approach is being supported by Skills Development Scotland. Neville Prentice, senior director of service development and delivery, said: "As Scotland's skills and training body, we understand very clearly that parents play a key role in supporting their children's career and learning choices."

`They are keen to share their expertise'

Using parents to support the curriculum is well established at Sciennes Primary School in Edinburgh, according to depute headteacher Carolyn Anstruther, pictured.

"We've had doctors in P1 holding surgeries for injured teddy bears to support the health and well-being programme, a director of a gaming company sharing his knowledge of developing apps and an author supporting the publication of a P7 book, to name but a few," she says.

Ms Anstruther adds that during the school's recent science project, three parents led assemblies: a neurologist, a palaeontologist and a professor of medicine.

"The celebration of our science focus will be a whole-school science fair held in June, which will be organised and run by parents and staff jointly," she says. "The interactive workshops will be led by parent volunteers keen to share their knowledge, expertise and time with the children."

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