Too often, schools approach parental engagement in the wrong way, particularly if a school is in an area of high deprivation. Assumptions are made, contexts ignored and an attitude of blame adopted.
The truth is that very few parents actively tell their children that making good progress at school does not matter. Some are, of course, ambivalent, but that is quite different to being hostile to school. In areas of socio-economic deprivation, many parents can suffer from a poverty of literacy and aspiration. And where second and third generations of parents are unemployed, work for minimum wage or accept jobs with anti-social hours in order to earn more money, it can be a real challenge to put education at the top of the priority list.
But I have rarely met a parent who didn’t want to do a good job. Instead, I have met too many who didn’t know how to nurture children appropriately, failed to impose boundaries and gave up their parenting responsibilities far too easily.
If you want to engage with parents, it is this context that should be your starting point, rather than any accusations of neglect or apportioning of blame. Here are some things we have put in place on that basis.
Make your school welcoming
Many of our hard-to-reach parents have low levels of literacy, were excluded from school themselves, have been in the criminal justice system or are just very wary of authority. So, coming into school for a parents’ evening to talk to teachers, all of whom appear highly articulate and confident, is going to make some parents feel very inadequate. When I first arrived at my secondary school, rates of attendance at parents’ evenings were as low as 50 per cent, even in Year 11.
We tackle this issue early, right from the first year of school. Establishing a nurture group for key stage 3 has been one idea that has helped enormously. Many of the students involved in the group are from hard-to-reach families. Attendance by parents at school meetings has increased markedly because we hold them in a specified classroom near the school reception. The room has a non-threatening primary-style environment, and although it may seem like a small difference, this has had a big impact on parents’ confidence and how comfortable they feel when they are in school.
A barbecue for our new Year 7s has also proved a very good icebreaker. We provide burgers and hot dogs for an informal setting in which parents can meet tutors and subject staff. Free food is a draw for many of our families, who often bring brothers and sisters along, too. I am fine with this as I have achieved my aim of getting the family to visit the school and build a relationship with some of my staff.
Finally, I ring individual parents who have not yet made an appointment for parents’ evening to encourage them to come in to school. If necessary, we arrange for them to meet one member of staff who has taken the time to gather information on the student’s progress in different subjects. Having one conversation can be less daunting.
Have dedicated staff
We asked our retiring special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) coordinator to stay on in a new role as a home-school link manager. This has been invaluable, as she has been able to make home visits, invite parents in for coffee and generally have time to ensure that parents are introduced to the role that they need to develop in order to support their child. This is time-consuming work and it requires a dedicated focus.
She also makes home visits when a pupil’s attendance falls below 90 per cent. The idea is to nip the problem in the bud. It is not always popular, but the consistency of this approach is vital so families recognise that we are not going to go away and that cooperation with the school is the key.
We have also jointly employed a parent support adviser with some of our cluster schools. She works across all phases and has a consistent message that she is there to support the needs of families so that children make the best possible progress at school.
It is important that she is a non-teaching link to our students’ homes. This has, in many cases, resulted in greater parental confidence to come in to the school and talk directly to teaching staff.
Recently, we have been working with a student who started mid-year and has a history of poor behaviour. It came to light that every time a school or member of social services had tried to support the family, they had moved on or become suddenly uncontactable. The student’s behaviour is extreme and he is unresponsive to all sanctions.
The parents missed appointments and refused to engage. So, supported by the local authority, one of my heads of year made a home visit. It was worthwhile, as the family now realises that we are not going to stop and they are showing some trust in us as a school and allowing their child to be supported in a more appropriate way.
Empowering your staff to be proactive and reach out in this way is an important factor in parental engagement.
These approaches and many others have ensured that we have developed a reputation as an inclusive school that listens to families. We now regularly have turnouts of up to 80 per cent at parents’ evenings: we still have some way to go, but we feel that we are on the right track by working with parents’ context, rather than against it.
Julia Vincent is headteacher at Warblington School in Hampshire