School staff and parents will have their own opinions about the importance and level of parental engagement and these views may not necessarily coincide. Sometimes schools find that there is a world of difference between the views of their staff and those of the parents when it comes down to the detail. For example, how much should parents be expected, or encouraged, to be involved in the life of the school? Should parents become involved in the decision-making processes of the school? If so, to what extent? How should or could schools approach and progress this work? How will success be measured?
Finding out the views of parents and staff
A useful starting point for schools can be to survey the views of a cross-section of school staff and parents. All those who are surveyed must be encouraged to give their views as openly and freely as possible in order for the survey to be really meaningful. The aim of the survey will be to compare and contrast the views of the two groups in order to set aims and objectives for future work on parental engagement in the school. There can be differences in perception between these groups in terms of what they consider the role of parents should be in the support of children’s learning. Should parents be expected to provide support with homework tasks, and to what extent? What do parents think they could/should be doing to improve their child’s achievement? What do teachers think about the involvement of parents in their children’s learning?
Selecting a sample of school staff for the survey
The survey of staff should mirror the suggestions made in the previous section. Ideally, those participating in the survey should include a wide range of teachers with varying levels of experience and responsibility, for example, newly qualified teachers, heads of departments and faculties, as well as members of the senior leadership team. A variety of support staff with wide-ranging experience, expertise and diverse backgrounds also need to be included. The purpose of this approach is to make it clear that parental engagement is the responsibility of all staff, so it must become fully embedded in school thinking.
Selecting a sample of parents for the survey
If the views of parents/carers are to be meaningful, then it is vitally important that the sample of parents includes those from as many different groups as possible. In some schools this will include some ‘who might traditionally find working with the school difficult’. In these cases the school may need to consider alternative approaches, such as surveying these parents by telephone or meeting with them at another venue nearby. There will also be parents who may have poor levels of literacy who will need to be interviewed more sensitively in order for their responses to be properly recorded.
What is most important is that the sample includes parents whose children have, for some reason, been identified as underachievers. They may be parents whose children fall into one or more of the following categories:
- they are poor attenders
- they display disruptive and/or aggressive behaviour in school
- they lack motivation for learning
- they lack self-esteem and/or confidence
- they are vulnerable in some way, e.g. are bullied
- they are living apart from one of their parents following divorce or separation
- they are new to the school (this may include non-English speakers)
- they have special needs
- they have poor literacy, numeracy and/or other communication skills.
Once the surveys have been collated and analysed it will be possible to identify areas of agreement and disagreement between parents and staff regarding the role of parents in their child’s learning (both at school and at home). These differences will determine the areas of work which the school needs to focus on.
Raising achievement through the improvement of attendance
Although schools are very aware of the link between very good attendance and high achievement, persistently poor attendance continues to remain a huge challenge for some schools. Where parents have been consistently condoning absence from school, for example, there is much work to be done in establishing and building up positive relationships between the school and the parents.
The appointment of specialist staff, such as school–home liaison officers, has been a successful approach where schools have wanted to improve achievement in the longer term.
So, much depends on building up and sustaining positive relationships between parents and the school. The introduction of rewards and incentives (that are also seen as being attractive to pupils) can help to promote improved attendance. Parents will have their own views about such reward schemes.
Removing the barriers for parents who are newly arrived in the UK
For many parents and children who are newly arrived in the UK, the education system can feel very alien. Language and cultural differences can make parents feel intimidated by schools in the UK. Furthermore, if they have emigrated from a country where parental involvement with schools has been discouraged, this will be a significant barrier for them.
Schools have developed a range of solutions to overcome such barriers, for example, arranging for a mother-tongue speaker to meet with the parents, offering classes in English language and/or offering induction sessions to help the parents to become more familiar with and confident in their understanding of the British school system.
Conversely, some schools have benefited from organising information sessions, run by parents, to help staff gain a better understanding of the lifestyles, traditions and customs of local ethnic minority groups.
Improving achievement in a specific subject
There are, of course, pupils who achieve high grades across a majority of subjects but perform less well in one or two subjects such as mathematics and science. (The example that follows is about the underachievement of girls, but of course there are other equally valid examples about the underachievement of boys).
Girls, more often than boys, can have a built-in belief that they cannot do well in mathematics and/or science. Parents can unwittingly reinforce the commonly held view that boys find it easier to solve mathematical or number tasks than girls.
If the mothers of girls experienced difficulty in mathematics or science when they were at school, they may pass on this belief to their daughters. This is an area where the school can play a positive role in encouraging the parents of girls to develop higher expectations for their daughters. It can help parents to improve girls’ attitudes and develop greater levels of participation in maths and science. Some schools have introduced numeracy sessions for mothers and daughters to attend together.
Surveys of parents and school staff can be a useful starting point to kick-start the work on parental engagement.
When parents and schools have a united approach towards parental engagement then much good progress can be made towards the raising of pupil achievement.
It is essential for schools to engage with all groups of parents to make this work really inclusive.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you to put the ideas in this article into practice:
- Checklist - Evaluating engagement of parents and carers218.5 KB
- Checklist - Engagement of parents and carers evidence194 KB
About the author
Jenny Townsend is a freelance education adviser to schools across the UK, supporting various aspects of school improvement. She has extensive experience of supporting schools in the areas of continuing professional development, community engagement, inclusion, adult and family learning and parental engagement.
This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of School Inspection + Improvement Magazine.