When Ludgershall Castle Primary ran a session on e-safety, only one parent turned up.
A few months later, when it held a phonics discussion, so many parents attended that there were not enough biscuits to go around.
What had changed in the interim was that staff at the Wiltshire primary had begun using a toolkit for engaging parents, drawn up by Janet Goodall, lecturer in educational leadership at the University of Bath. She believes that all schools should take active steps to involve parents in pupils’ learning. And small details can often make all the difference.
“Parents are the first teachers of their children,” Dr Goodall tells TES. “There has to be a realisation that learning doesn’t stop at the school gate.” She cites a 2013 report published by the charity Save the Children, which revealed that 80 per cent of the achievement gap between children on free school meals and their peers was determined by what went on outside school.
Dr Goodall will be presenting an introduction to her toolkit at the annual British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society conference in Cheshire in July.
Her starting point is the recognition that not all parents feel comfortable coming into school. There are different ways of tackling this. One school filmed classroom life and screened the video in the local supermarket.
“It’s a step towards building up trust,” Dr Goodall says. “School has changed so much since parents were there.”
Rob Wood, assistant principal of the Wellington Academy in Wiltshire, has also worked with Dr Goodall and now prioritises involving families. His pastoral team calls up the parents of incoming Year 7 pupils to arrange a meeting in their own homes.
Engaging parents need not involve large-scale changes. “Simple things can be quite profound,” Dr Goodall says. For example, when teachers are in the playground at the start or end of each day, they should stand on their own, rather than in groups.
“It can be quite intimidating seeing teachers talking to each other,” she explains. “You’re much more likely to approach a teacher on their own than a group of them.”
Other similarly small gestures can make parents feel more welcome at school. “One question I frequently ask is when the last bus leaves school that will get your parents home,” Dr Goodall says. “Without knowing that, how can you plan a parents’ evening?”
Staff at Wellington – which is sponsored by the public school of the same name – sometimes text an image of a pupil’s work to parents along with a comment. “It works better than the classic praise postcard,” Mr Wood says. “It enables some dialogue, such as, ‘Maybe ask your child to explain what he’s been doing’.”
At Ludgershall Castle, where a significant proportion of pupils receive free school meals, parents tended to turn up to parents’ evenings but were otherwise reluctant to attend school events.
So headteacher Andy Bridewell decided to replace notification letters saying “everybody is welcome” with personal invitations, handwritten by pupils. It was this approach that resulted in a turnout of almost a hundred parents at the phonics discussion.
Dr Goodall believes that all these steps help to build an understanding between parents and schools. “Like any relationship, the relationship between parents and school needs to be built on trust,” she says. “The germ of trust is already there: everybody wants the best for the children. It’s about focusing on that.”
Malcolm Trobe, acting general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, believes that such work is vital. “If a child has a very negative home attitude, it makes it much more difficult for that child to have a positive view of themselves, their work at school and what opportunities might be open for them,” he says. Mr Trobe insists that engaging with parents must be seen as a whole-school priority.
Dr Goodall agrees. “If a primary teacher wants to teach secondary, they have to retrain,” she says. “But we’re quite happy to say to a primary teacher, ‘Go and speak to the adults.’ So there’s a staff-training issue here. It has to come from senior leadership. It has to be a priority.”
For more on engagement, see our feature about how parents pick schools on pages 24-31
10 ways to reach out
Consider holding initial meetings with new parents in their homes rather than at school.
Parents who are reluctant to come into school are often still interested in what goes on there, so screen filmed highlights in a public place, such as a supermarket.
Try staging a demonstration lesson.
Provide a sheet of sample questions people might want to ask at parents’ evenings.
When scheduling events, check what time the last bus leaves so that parents are able to get home.
Encourage teachers not to stand in groups in the playground. It is much less intimidating to approach a single teacher.
Check parents appear in school policies – not only regarding homework and uniform but also teaching and learning.
A weekly newsletter could include regular thanks to parents for attending events, reading with their children and so on.
Encourage parents to ask children about their day at school. Teenagers may not answer, but knowing someone cares makes a difference.
Ring parents and ask how you can help them. The school may be able to provide learning resources or emotional support.
Source: Janet Goodall, University of Bath