Why does it matter?
Ofsted places emphasis on taking into account the views of parents, who can request an inspection if they have concerns about a school’s performance.
Quite apart from this, there is plenty of existing research to demonstrate just how significant parental engagement can be in raising children’s aspirations and levels of achievement. Parents — just because they are parents — often have a much greater influence over their children than any school can achieve. Most are filled with pride when they see their own children achieving well at school, whatever their own experience was like. Consequently, many schools that have developed closer links with parents have reaped the benefits, such as improved standards of attendance, punctuality, behaviour and achievement.
Which schools need to engage with their parents?
The answer is simple — all schools stand to gain from high quality parental engagement. There will obviously be differences in the approach required for each school to suit its pupil and parent population.
The role of school leaders
Parental engagement works best when it is led from the top. Headteachers need to ensure that parental engagement becomes embedded in all aspects of school life. It should be included in all the school’s strategic planning tools, for instance, in the school improvement plan.
School leaders can readily identify groups of children who are underachieving within their school, for example, white male pupils living on a nearby deprived housing estate and/or pupils from a specific ethnic minority group. Engaging with the parents of these pupils in a positive way can make a real difference in terms of improving the life chances of these young people.
Removing the barriers to parental engagement
Effective communication is always the key to successful parental engagement. Schools can begin by considering how welcoming their schools are for parents and other visitors. Does the school have clear signage (either words and/or symbols) and designated parking spaces (if applicable) reserved for visiting parents? Does the school provide a welcoming space at the reception area that includes a variety of seating to suit all parents, including those with disabilities or walking problems, or younger children? To check this, you could ask parents how well (or otherwise) they are welcomed when they visit the school.
Do parents know what the guidelines and procedures are about how they can communicate with the school, for example: what they can do if they are worried about something; how long they expect to wait before receiving a response to their telephone calls or emails; are they encouraged to participate in local opportunities for adult and/or family learning so that they can value their own learning and feel more confident about supporting their children’s learning?
Use of modern technology
Having an active parent teacher association or small parents' voice group will provide the school with some useful feedback from a limited number of parents. However this feedback will not necessarily be representative of the whole parent body because many parents lead very busy lives in which different roles compete for their attention.
In the search for new, effective ways of engaging with parents, some schools have harnessed technology creatively, using automated email and texting systems in addition to the now popular learning platforms. School websites have been expanded to enable parents to view detailed curriculum information, parent handbooks, user-friendly versions of relevant school policies and other information. There are headteachers who successfully use social networking sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, or a blog, to communicate with a wider group of parents than can be reached via more traditional forms of communication, for instance, school newsletters.
Good ideas and good practice
Numerous examples of good practice abound in schools in which priority has been given to improving the way parents are involved in the day-to-day life of their schools. A few examples are listed here.
Home-school link workers have been appointed to make visits to the home of each child before they start at the school. In the longer term, these workers play an invaluable role in helping the school gain a fuller understanding of all the children who join a school, with on-going support available where needed. Where English may not be a first language, or where parents have poor literacy skills, interventions can be put into place at an early stage to support both the parents and their children. There are many ways in which schools now involve parents in their children’s learning. Inviting parents to come in on specific days to see lessons in progress has become more meaningful than the ‘window dressing’ events that are often held for new parents at induction. In some schools, staff and children have led sessions and lessons for parents on a wide range of topics, quite often focusing on basic skills so that parents will become more enthusiastic about their own learning and gain the confidence to become involved in their children’s learning.
There are schools that encourage parents to become volunteers in the school — with adequate safeguarding procedures in place, of course. Schools that have been most successful have ensured that these volunteers are fully supported by a member of staff, who takes on the role of a volunteer mentor. Significantly, some parent volunteers have later progressed to paid jobs in schools, resulting in the pride and admiration of their children.
Some schools, having identified the need to raise pupils' aspirations, routinely include parents — as well as pupils — in outings to universities when students are in their last year of secondary school. Such visits give parents a taste of what their offspring will face once they commence study at a higher level institution and, in some cases, a better understanding of the pressures that could arise from living away from home.
Local football clubs around the country have developed a strong community focus. Some schools have taken advantage of this. In the most successful partnerships, groups of pupils and their parents are able to take part in after-school fitness and training sessions. These are run by the footballers themselves in a kind of informal family learning atmosphere. Once again, it is all about helping the parents to value and enjoy learning.
Ways of gaining meaningful feedback
Schools need to measure the impact of any parental engagement initiatives that are introduced. As a baseline, schools should meticulously record all parental attendance and participation across all aspects of school life in which they want to involve parents. The next stage is to follow up on all those parents who have chosen to opt out and explore new ways of encouraging their involvement in the future.
Schools are experienced at carrying out both written surveys and interviews with parents, but there can be a danger that surveys feel like just another meaningless piece of bureaucracy. There are schools that have developed more informal ways of gathering feedback, for example, by inviting parents to rate their satisfaction levels with various initiatives by selecting coloured Post-it notes (available in the three traffic-light colours) and placing these on a wall. Be creative!
Acting on the feedback
All feedback, whether it is good, bad or indifferent, is invaluable because it helps the school to improve its parental engagement. It is vital that the school actively follows up the comments and views expressed by parents, and acts positively to resolve any matters of concern. Put more simply, it is a case of, "We asked, you said, we did".
Results of improved parental engagement
Long-term benefits for schools resulting from improved parental engagement can include schools that were previously regarded as unpopular choices becoming oversubscribed, or elections being required for school governor positions where previously it had been a challenge to recruit and retain parent governors. Closer links with parents have led to greater participation by parent governors in the life of the school.
For some schools the benefits of parental engagement go well beyond the life of the school itself. As a result of parents being encouraged to go on school visits to local areas of interest and learning, some parents subsequently have the confidence to take their children on educational outings during the school holidays. So the desire and motivation to further their own, and their children’s, learning has led to them making the first step into their own lifelong learning.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you to put the ideas in this article into practice:
About the author
This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of School Inspection + Improvement Magazine.