Parents have always been a key part of school life but are also a group which many schools struggle to engage. The recent education whitepaper released last week unveiled some interesting changes being put in place that will affect the role of parents. With a new emphasis on the ‘skills’ of a governing body, there will no longer be specific places for parent governors on all school governing bodies in England and unions are warning that parents will now be sidelined in the running of schools. With the changes to assessment and many schools now working with their different replacements to levels, are we at risk of disconnecting parents even further from school life?
The whitepaper goes on to highlight a focus on ‘empowering pupils, parents and local communities’. A new ‘parent portal’ will be set up to provide parents with a ‘one-stop-shop’, which claims will be “clearly and simply setting out the information they need to know about the school system and how to support their child in education.” There will also be a new process for parents to raise complaints, to ensure parents easily understand how to get a place at local schools and that parents’ views of schools are taken into consideration. But what can schools do to ensure parents are actively engaged in their child’s education?
Communication is key
Schools don’t always need to wait until parents’ evening to communicate with parents. Regular, informal communications with parents, whether it’s by text or email, can help keep parents up-to-date with their child’s progress. It’s worth remembering that this doesn’t have to be something negative such as their child being late – positive behaviour should be communicated too. It could be that the child has earned a house point that day, for example.
Parental engagement was an issue that Sale Grammar School in South Manchester struggled with. When they ran a survey to find out the engagement levels of parents in 2009, only 25% of parents said they were happy with the school’s parent communications, which were largely paper-based.
The school then decided to launch an ‘engaging parents through ICT’ initiative to improve their parental communications. Sale Grammar implemented the SIMS Learning Gateway parent portal, which allowed parents to log on and view students’ reports, update student details and view their child’s progress. The school ran a new survey with parents just over a year ago and 75% of them said that they were happy with parental communications - a major improvement on the engagement levels that were recorded five years ago.
Break down the barriers
For schools where many children are from disadvantaged backgrounds, engaging with parents can be even more challenging. Kirsty Graham, a nursery teacher at Marner Primary School in London and 2015 Let Teachers SHINE winner, admits that engaging parents is a key issue for the school. With many of the children having low starting points due to the parents’ lack of spoken and understanding English, communicating regularly with parents can be a challenge. Kirsty told us: “A lot of the issues we face are a lack of understanding from parents of how they can support their children. It’s also a lack of confidence – it can be particularly difficult for parents who don’t speak the language. We are lucky enough to have members of staff who speak Bengali, which is the language that most of the parents speak. This means we are able to communicate on a face-to-face level but if we sent a letter home we wouldn’t get a great response.”
Kirsty set up a project, funded by SHINE, which aims to engage with these parents through curriculum-based workshops which coach them to better support their children’s home learning. The school is currently running an Easter bonnet competition, where the children and parents work together to create the best Easter bonnet, which will be judged and the winner awarded a prize. The school ran a workshop which the parents were invited to and they were provided with the tools to work on the project at home.
One inspiring aspect of Kirsty’s project is the books she has created, called ‘special books’, which all nursery children in the SHINE project receive. The school needed to provide evidence of what the children are doing in nursery, and thought the books would provide an innovative way of recording this. It also gave the opportunity for parents and children to work together in updating the books with recent activities and trips they have been involved with. “We do everything we can to make parents realise they are part of this process, part of the team and it’s not just down to the school and the teacher,” Kirsty said.
There are many other ways that schools can work closely with parents, whether it’s inviting parents in to school to talk about their career, helping parents to support their child better with homework or simply making sure parents feel listened to. All of these points will not only strengthen your relationship with parents but ultimately help them to better understand their child’s education and progress in these times of change.
However the education landscape pans out, there’s no question that going forward, parents should play a greater role in their child’s education. Let’s hope the latest government changes including the new ‘parent portal’, will help parents feel more empowered to be involved in the work of schools.