It happens often. Parents’ Night. A nervous couple shuffle into my classroom, awaiting news of their child’s progress in English. They’re nervous not because they expect bad news – far from it. It’s school: the building, the formalities, the atmosphere. Their own mixed memories of times at school come flooding back as they walk through the corridors, past rooms in which they may have sat, past teachers by whom they may have been taught. Perhaps they haven’t been inside a school since the day they left, triumphantly vowing never to return.
But at least they have turned up. Many don’t. If we are serious about narrowing the attainment gap, we must address this issue, both for those parents who stay away and those who come, grudgingly, terrified.
In a blog post, “The Purpose of Education: not so much filling up empty vessels as empty chairs” (see bit.ly/emptychairsblog), teacher Andy Day claims that “the blight of education is the empty chair at parents’ evening”. I would argue that, while this is true, having parents who don’t feel they belong is equally tragic.
Our current educational woes have occurred as a result of a whole range of issues, some self-inflicted, some the result of a long, drawn-out embedding of a curriculum that may take years to come into its own. Our impatience for the perfect education system leads to poor decision-making and failure to see the wood among the forest of trees.
It’s not as if there hasn’t been money to spend. It’s not as if we don’t have the will. What we do lack, however, is the patience to envisage the long-term effects for which we strive. The answer to this should be staring at us, waving maniacally.
The role of parents is critical. Clearly, there are good examples of parental involvement out there, but it’s not merely about having parents in and around the school. We need to think bigger than that.
How can we create a culture in which every parent not only feels welcome, but is also actively making use of the school as a community space?
So bear with me as I wobble, like a Scooby-Doo dream sequence, into an imaginary world. It is a world where our schools genuinely become the heart of our community; where no parent is resentful of their own school experiences and they see a visit to school as a normal part of their week; where the local press regularly mention schools for positive reasons and advertise and support activities occurring on a weekly basis – a world where a school building being ignored as a community hub is unheard of.
In reality, while there are some great examples of this around the country, it is a dream that seems far, far away.
Closed to the public
Some of us work in huge buildings that have corridors filled with computer classrooms, 20 PCs in each. The buildings have classrooms designed for cookery, with equipment in spades. They have music rooms with pianos, guitars, you name it. You’ll find science labs, a library, a gymnasium – often with up-to-date exercise gear – drama studios, art studios. Not to mention classrooms aplenty. And all of these, while being utilised all day, are, in effect, closed to the public at about 4pm. There is something wrong about that.
So, in this imaginary world, school buildings are in use until 10pm every night. Adult learners are becoming proficient in cooking and baking, building on an interest sparked by a popular TV contest, and they are going home to cook healthy meals for their families. The technical department is in full flow as parents are taught how to create wonderful things with wood, which they give as Christmas gifts to relatives, or they go and improve their homes with DIY. We can hear a Gareth Malone-style choir full of parents rehearsing for the end-of-year concert. A computer suite has a CV-writing class, a creative-writing class and a basic computing skills class. The community is alive in a community building.
Of course, many changes have had to be made for this to work. More teachers had to trained and paid for. Some teachers might work from 2pm until 10pm for a couple of weeks every month. Children still leave at 4pm but, after an hour of cleaning and tidying, people start arriving for the evening’s work. Parents can see their child’s classroom, perhaps chat to teachers, look at the work being done. Parents’ evenings, occurring once a year, are a thing of the past. It took a huge culture shift and commitment from everyone but we all got there in the end…
However, like all episodes of Scooby-Doo, the dream sequence ends and we unmask the real culprit. The biggest barrier to progressing to the sort of scenario I’ve outlined is not merely cost, but the will to be brave and invest. It certainly would cost money, but it would also require a lot of commitment and dedication from a lot of people.
But think of the investment in community. Think of the rise in literacy and numeracy levels, the health and fitness of the community, the parental involvement. Think of the fabulous community use of a building that had been under-utilised. Think of the world we would live in. It is not a case of asking how we can afford it – how can we afford not to go down this road?
Kenny Pieper is a teacher of English in Scotland