I have mixed emotions about this choice of school. I used to teach in the very large comprehensive for which this school is a feeder school. The top sets in the comprehensive invariably contained many graduates of this primary school. Ofsted rate it as outstanding and all parents I spoke to were delighted with it. However, it is the opinions of other teachers that worry me. Comments made about the learning environment, reading standards, and so on, tell a slightly different story.

What I find significant about this is the type of knowledge that different parties own. Who has access to what information and how reliable or valid are these views? When my little boy is at school, I want him to have a nice teacher who will care for him, friends who will think he is great and experiences that will create lots of happy memories. However, my educator’s head is preoccupied with the quality of teaching and learning, the extent of cognitive demand placed on students and so on.

What I am wrestling with in my professional life now is the extent to which these two things are and should be separate issues and who should own the two agendas. The dilemma poses a number of questions for me (see above) and this article explores these, questions rather than providing any answers.

Conversations that make a substantial difference

There is an extensive range of publications reporting on what can be done to enhance parental involvement in schools in an attempt to improve pupil attainment and achievement.

The DfES has commissioned a number of research reports pertaining to parents. For example, the report by Desforges and Abouchaar (2003) that explores the significance of the impact parents have on pupil achievement (see the section ‘what is known about parental involvement’); the report on specific examples of parental involvement from Moran and Ghate (2004), or the one from Hallam et al (2004) on improving young people’s behaviour and attendance through parenting programmes. However, not much has been written about how to begin these conversations. How do you reach a point where these interventions are feasible and how is clarity achieved about what parents and schools want and need from a partnership?

Parents’ evenings, open evenings, sessions for sharing coursework tips or study skills for parents and so on are all valid and potentially valuable examples of a school’s engagement with parents. What strikes me, as a teacher and now as a parent, about these examples, particularly the first two, is that these events are seldom conversations – they are delivery sessions, one-way conversations with the majority of listening done by the parent.

It is important to acknowledge that this is not necessarily wrong. I was happy to listen to the praise bestowed on my son at his first parents’ evening. I am not sure how I would have felt had the feedback been less positive but I would want to know and, more importantly, have an opportunity to discuss strategies for dealing with it. The parent-school engagements that are more conversational are usually those between teacher and individual parents and are often, particularly in secondary school, a result of a problem.

I have not yet decided what the nirvana is with regard to school-parent engagement but it would be good if parents and schools  could define it together. I suspect that my ideal might include the elements set out in the section ‘Parent-School Relations: elements for success’ below.

A critical point is how conversations begin and then progress. Consequently, I have been trialling a number of tools and processes designed for schools to begin conversations with parents. With a background in teaching and learning and professional development, I have found that many of the thinking skills strategies, designed to enhance cognitive abilities and facilitate dialogic learning, have the same potential to create rich learning environments when used with adults.

Parent-school relations: elements for success

  • Each party knows how to begin a conversation and what is a suitable time and place for this
  • Parents have the necessary support and knowledge to help their children be as successful as they can be and the school has a similar commitment from parents
  • Parents have the opportunity to contribute to discussions where both parties deem that their contribution would be helpful
  • There are a variety of conversations taking place that allow majority representation without always needing to consult the majority — one consideration would be: what  does ‘working on behalf of’ look like in this context?
  • Real collaboration exists and this collaboration adds value

Teacher involvement in engaging parents

When a school decides to engage with parents, it seems likely to be a leadership team decision that moves straight to parent consultation before discussions with staff take place. One secondary school, encouraged by Ofsted to look again at parental opinions of the school, commissioned an external agency to gather views from its parents. By chance, the school learned that some of its staff felt uncomfortable with this. As staff had not been consulted or seen the questionnaire, some of them were fearful of what would be said about them individually. Consequently, before we did any work with parents, we recruited a small cohort of staff to trial a process that allowed them better understanding of  the school’s rationale for its actions, as well as sharing the evidence base for working with parents in a more collaborative way. This seemed to allay fears, enthuse staff and create a group of advocates for the school to draw on to roll out the process.

We began by focusing on reasons that schools do not engage with parents. A series of activities led us to create a ‘diamond nine’ of reasons for not engaging (see the section below ‘Reasons for schools not engaging with parents’; for details of what diamond nine activities involve, see the case study ‘Engaging parents: developing equal partnerships to support learning’). Although the sample was small (only four groups, totalling 14 staff, including the headteacher and both deputies), the similarities in their thinking were significant.

What is known about parental involvement?

The General Teaching Council of England (GTCE) research of the month (ROM) summarises the Desforges and Abouchaar DfES research report and shares a number of valuable case studies that readers may find of interest, see: www.gtce.org.uk/research/romtopics/rom_teachingandlearning/parentalrom

One of the findings that this research summary draws particular attention to is the range of activities that parents involve themselves in at home and at school. The review found that the conversations and discussions that parents have with their children at home are the most important for enhancing pupil achievement.

Charles Desforges, speaking at a local authority parenting conference in North Tyneside, pointed out that, of the 40 ‘gold standard’ international studies drawn on to construct this report, all of them are united on the point that ‘the impact of parental involvement at home is highly significant.’ The full report is available to download at: www.dfes.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RR433.pdf

How much do we want  parents to understand?

At the heart of effective teaching and learning is the relationship between the teacher, their pupils and their parents. And just as the quality of teaching and leadership in our school is the key determinant of educational attainment, the degree and quality of engagement parents have with their child’s learning is the crucial factor outside school. Moreover, the simple fact is that the family has a greater influence on the child’s achievements and future prospects than the school.
(General Teaching Council Chief Executive Carol Adams, speaking at a fringe meeting of the 2006 Labour Party Conference, organised by the GTC and the Social Market Foundation)

I had initially anticipated spending a significant amount of time sharing with parents aspects and examples of effective school-based teaching and learning. Although there is potential benefit in sharing classroom pedagogy with parents, I was interested to note that all eight of the parents at our trial meeting were happy to leave this to teachers, who they see as experts. They were confident to leave teaching to teachers, although most of the group did say they would like to learn from teachers how they could better support their child’s learning. Would this compound the expert/novice relationship that is perceived by some parents to exist or should we, as a profession, be less apologetic about having expertise that we can share?

This raises questions about power relationships, something that should be considered more. It is also worth acknowledging that these parents represented a school in an affluent socio-economic context. These questions should also be considered in less affluent contexts, where power is perhaps a greater inhibitor to reciprocal learning.

These findings in relation to expert and novice resonate with the findings from the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations (NCPTA), which represents more than six million parents and teachers. Margaret Morrissey of the NCPTA says:

Parents can use the information teachers give them to help teachers raise standards and progress learning both at home and at school but the assessment is the teacher’s role. Parents need to understand it but, ultimately, parents respect teachers’ professionalism and trust them to assess their child, using the information gained to progress their learning.

As was reflected recently in the educational press, there is a perceived danger in making explicit the shared responsibility for pupil attainment, viewed by some as creating a scapegoat for underperformance in schools.

Reasons for schools not engaging with parents

  • The top three reasons given in the ‘diamond nine’ in each group were almost identical: lack of time, blame culture and difficult parents. If you find this to be the same in your school, this could be a starting point for reflection when working with teachers to build a profile of the characteristics of positive experiences with parents.
  • The ‘mystery’ (for an explanation of mysteries, see the sections towards the end of this article) used with staff created an opportunity to challenge their perceptions about parents’ contributions to pupil attainment. It intrigued me that only one person in the group saw raising pupil attainment as a reason for collaborating with parents. Few in the group recognised or knew of the evidence about how parental involvement impacts on pupil attainment. This could be a way of beginning a conversation that shares what is known and reflects on the complexity of who owns responsibility for pupil achievement and attainment.
  • It is also noteworthy that staff had a very definite image of what parental engagement looked like. Having started the session by asking staff to visualise a specific experience of engaging with a parent, it was interesting that nobody articulated images of the school’s successful parents’ events, for example, target-setting days (this is possibly due to the nature of the task, being focused on the negative). A potential follow-on activity might be for staff to create images of engagements they would be proud of. It could be interesting, in a mixed group of parents and teachers, to invite parents to do the same in order to develop protocols or guidance for successful engagement.
  • Providing a synthesis of research — such as the GTCE research of the month (see ‘what is known about parental involvement’) — for staff to read and reflect on could be a useful step to take after a whole-school session. Identifying a small group of cross-department teacher researchers to begin activity about the impact of building parental involvement could be an interesting medium-term plan. In the short term, this group could act as a test-bed for working with parents.

Sharing the knowledge base with parents

The section ‘what is known about parental involvement’ summarises a recent DfES report on what is known about the value of parental involvement.

Mysteries, a strategy used in teaching thinking, is just one example of how using a process designed to enhance pupil learning can have similar benefits for adults (either parents or teachers) – see below.

A mystery is effective in facilitating a conversation around a fictional character or issue, thus avoiding anecdotal debate about an individual child or teacher – some examples of mysteries designed for use with teachers and parents are given below. At the same time, mysteries are a medium for sharing an evidence base about a particular issue (for example, what is known about the impact of parental involvement). When parents engage with a mystery, they experience the type of good practice they should expect their children to experience in the classroom, giving the school an opportunity to model an effective approach to teaching and learning.

There remains a question about the extent to which parents need to know what the evidence base is. It seems reasonable to assume that sharing with them the knowledge that talk at home has a significant positive impact on their child’s attainment is a good thing. How the imparting of that knowledge is best done is another question.

Is it, for example, simply a presentation, included in the obligatory induction evening, or is it the way we design the work we set for students? What is the difference? Rather than teach parents what to do, teachers help construct the context in which talk can be facilitated. This may not require explicit intervention, although a combination of ‘education’ and process seems sensible.

There are inevitably a number of solutions to sharing what is known about parental engagement. As many schools produce newsletters to send home, this might prove a useful vehicle for knowledge transfer. For example, an item on ‘Did you know that research tells us…’ in the newsletter might become a regular feature.

This could be a way to help parents understand the rationale for school policy, potentially diffusing problems that so often emerge from lack of understanding about why certain school systems exist as they do.

This leads to another question, perhaps the most fundamental, about what is the best type of parent-school engagement to bring about the highest increase in pupil attainment.

Mysteries

Mysteries are designed to encourage pupils to deal with ambiguity through addressing a question that has no single correct answer, where they are not even sure what information is relevant – rather like real life. Through the process, they have to practise and develop some crucial skills:

  • sorting relevant information from irrelevant information
  • interpreting information
  • making links between disparate pieces of information
  • speculating to form hypotheses
  • checking and refining
  • explaining.

The following is taken from Thinking Through Geography, by David Leat (2001):

Far too frequently, pupils are given tasks in which they are presented with a page of text and all they have to do is retrieve the right words from the page to complete the task. There is little challenge in this and learning skills are not developed to any significant extent; they just learn how to perform a ritual. This is not how problems or issues present themselves in higher education or real-life problem-solving. In these contexts you have to take discreet, apparently unconnected, pieces of information and fit them together to make sense of disorder, read between the lines, come up with a variety of ideas and evaluate them.

The successful completion of mysteries depends on cooperative groupwork, in which productive learning and social relationships are fostered. Inevitably, disagreement may emerge as group members want to do it their own way. This is particularly true of older and more able pupils, who are more confident of their opinions. If handled sensitively (and with patience), pupils can develop speaking and listening skills and learn ways in which group conflicts can be resolved.

If these are the known benefits to students of working in this way, we can assume that there will be similar gains if adults collaborate around solving a mystery.

  • ‘Kirk Newton High School is an 11–18 mixed comprehensive in a semi-rural county. The school has recently been visited by Ofsted. Mrs James, the parent of a Year 10 student, responded to their request for comment with a long letter, copied to the headteacher. Ofsted has identified parental consultation as an issue and the school must now respond with action.  What do you recommend the school do to enhance parental involvement in the medium term and why?’
  • ‘In reading James’ Y 10 school report, his mum and step-dad realise that he is failing to meet academic expectations. Who should accept the greatest responsibility for his current performance?’

What engagement has the highest leverage?

I suspect that many schools have excellent relationships with parents and that the teachers feel supported and valued; they work together towards shared goals and values. That is excellent and important. However, if we know from research that talk at home has the biggest impact on pupil attainment, particularly in Key Stages 1 and 2, it causes me to question whether the significant effort that schools put into parent-teacher engagement is really worth the investment.

Although I am not advocating the abolition of parents’ evenings, I would want schools to ask themselves how they know what difference they make and how they ensure that what is heard is translated into positive action at home. Similarly, a Year 7 induction evening or Year 9 open evening may be a really important and necessary information-sharing event, but has a trick been missed here? How could we make these events count more?

Do the hours that departments or key stage coordinators spend on lesson planning equate proportionately to the time spent planning homework that would encourage parents to talk with their children at home? In such a time-pressured environment, schools need to look carefully at investment and return.

How does the pupil fit in?

Constructing homework tasks that create a demand for parent-child talk is just one way to bring pupils into the parent-school engagement. Most parents of teenagers will identify with notes going astray on the way home from school, or reports that Mrs X is fully booked at parents’ evening, as a means of withholding information, such as the number of homeworks that have been submitted late. There is an issue about when to use pupils as the interface between home and school.

Even in the poorest of contexts, most parents have mobile phones. We could save time, effort and damage to the environment by sending text messages, reminding and advising parents, so that we make time to work more creatively with students and parents together. In a culture of ‘student voice’, it is worth considering how this can be triangulated with the parent and school voice to add a greater harmony to the way we work. School is not just about attainment; it is also about personal and social development. Working in collaboration can only enhance this sense of community and worth.

Incidentally, my son has now finished his first half term at school. He is very happy and has a teacher I am delighted with. He is reading up a storm and, to cap it all, on the first day of term, we found that the toilets had been refurbished. The debates about the school’s rebuild continues.

Julie McGrane is a former teacher and network consultant for the National College for School Leadership. She recently formed an education consultancy, Leading Learning

See also Julie McGrane’s Engaging Parents Toolkit, published by Optimus Education.

  • Desforges, D. and Abouchaar, A. (2003) The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment, DfES
  • Hallam, S., Rogers, L., Shaw, J. (2004) Improving children’s behaviour and attendance through the use of parenting programmes: an examination of good practice, DfES
  • Leat, D. (2001) Thinking through geography, Chris Kington Publishing
  • Moran, P. and Ghate, D. (2004) What works in parenting support, DfES
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