Schools must do more to get parents involved in education – even taking them on bonding weekends away – if Scotland is to close the stubborn attainment gap between rich and poor, according to Scotland’s newly crowned headteacher of the year.
Sheona Allen, head of Caledonia Primary in Glasgow’s East End, also said that school leaders should give staff time to pursue personal passions, regardless of whether this created more work for others.
“I think that working with parents is the only way that we can really close the gap – parents are such a vital part of children’s success,” Ms Allen, 43, told TESS.
Ms Allen’s school runs an evening support group for parents – whom she described as the “first and foremost educators” of their children – to chat through any problems and build bonds with staff. This culminates each year in a weekend away with families at an outdoor centre, bringing the “huge benefits” of getting on first-name terms with parents and knowing that “you can just phone them up if there’s an issue”.
This work was highlighted by judges for the recent Scottish Education Awards, who named Ms Allen as head of the year. They noted that “opportunities for parents to get involved in the school and to learn themselves are very striking”. Caledonia Primary depute head Jackie Mullen, meanwhile, described Ms Allen’s relationship with parents as “second to none”.
Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC), agreed that it was vital to involve families in education and warned that there were still too many schools with a “gulf” between staff and parents.
Parents could be “massive allies” to teachers, she added, but some schools felt they should be “managed” at a distance.
Research has consistently shown the benefits of getting parents more involved with their child’s school – they can provide a powerful remedy to the attainment gap, and the greatest impact tends to occur with the youngest children.
American academics Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp have summed up the “consistent, positive and convincing” evidence, saying: “When schools, families and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better at school, stay in school longer and like school more.”
In addition to her passion for involving parents, Sheona Allen’s colleagues have praised her willingness to enable staff to “follow their dreams”.
One principal teacher takes a day out a week to pursue his ambition of becoming a PE development officer.
Ms Mullen, meanwhile, is away every Thursday delivering Gaelic training to teachers across Scotland.
“Sheona is determined that I do this as she knows how professionally rewarding this is for me,” Ms Mullen said. “The extra burden goes on to Sheona but she would never dream of not giving us the chance to do this – [she] is always first to jump into a class to cover if a teacher is absent.”
Ms Allen explained her thought process: “You should be encouraging everybody to do the things that they’re passionate about, that they’re good at – if you allow people to fly, not only will children benefit but the profession as a whole will.”
Colleagues also highlighted her ability to look beyond pupils’ bad behaviour to the root causes behind it. On one occasion she had to go to hospital after a pupil cut her leg with broken glass, but Ms Allen’s determination to understand rather than punish “helped him enormously in rebuilding relationships with adults in school”, Ms Mullen said.
Creative school triumphs at TES Schools Awards 2016
Middleton Park Primary School in Aberdeen was named creative school of the year at the TES Schools Awards last Friday.
Judges praised its First World War project, which “embraced every aspect of the curriculum”, from taking part in a competition about tanks to making a film on the Christmas truce.
Middleton Park has increased pupils’ confidence, skills and attainment through creative projects such as a “Mission to Mars”, working with an artist in residence to create an art gallery and completing a “Fractions Outdoor Challenge”.
The school’s use of technology was also highlighted: pupils have uploaded more than 200 films to its Live Learning platform, which has received more than 50,000 hits from around 80 countries. P7 pupils are collaborating with their counterparts in Wuhan, China, to film a production of Macbeth.
The judges said: “An innovative model that has children live in their learning and embraces fresh ideas makes Middleton Park the natural winner.”
Headteacher Jenny Watson (pictured, left), who picked up the award at the ceremony in London, said: “We are absolutely delighted and have shared the news with the whole community. Social media has gone mad and we’ve had so many emails of congratulations.”