Jenny Townsend reveals the approaches she used to improve parental engagement at her school

The Grove is one of 30 schools in East Sussex that made a commitment to reaching the Extended Schools ‘core offer’ by September 2006. This ‘core offer’ includes high-quality wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm, a varied menu of activities – eg homework clubs, out of hours study, parenting support – a swift and easy referral to support services and the provision of wider community access to ICT, sports, arts and adult learning.

The Grove has been providing some extended services for some time, such as adult education, out of hours learning (including a vibrant breakfast club and homework club) holiday and summer schools, study support and a lively and varied range of community lettings.

Parental engagement, as outlined in the white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, is regarded as being essential in raising standards. According to the white paper, ‘Parents will receive regular, meaningful reports during the school year about how their child is doing, with opportunities to discuss their child’s progress with their teachers’. It goes on to say ‘Parents will have the chance to form parent councils to influence school decisions on issues such as school meals, uniform and discipline’ For some parents, the so-called ‘easy-to-reach’ parents, this will be welcomed enthusiastically.

Motivated parents
At The Grove such parents are already involved in its PTA and the Parents’ Voice groups. The Parents’ Voice provides an opportunity for parents to meet senior members of the leadership team and myself on a monthly basis to discuss a range of topics of universal interest, without requiring any commitment from the parents to such things as fund raising or additional meetings.

Parents who join these groups are highly motivated about being involved in their children’s learning and take up every possible opportunity to interact with the school. These tend to be the same parents who attend parents’ evenings.

A recent survey of such parents strongly indicated that they wanted an even greater involvement in their children’s learning, observing lessons, learning more about the curriculum and gaining an understanding of up-to-date technology such as interactive whiteboards. The Grove will now be focusing on developing ways to make this happen. In the spring term of 2006 the college invited a small number of parents in to school to try school dinners (charged at the same price that students pay) because of the current level of interest in healthy foods. This idea was the inspiration of the school’s catering manager.

Hard-to-reach parents
It is, however, the ‘hard-to-reach’ parents who will be the much bigger challenge in terms of involving them in the life of the school. The term ‘hard-to-reach’ is used here to define those parents who resist efforts to interact with the school and come to see the headteacher only when they are summoned because their child has been involved in a serious misdemeanour.

For these parents, often adults who had a bad experience of school themselves, there is a lot of work to be done before they will feel confident, inspired and motivated to begin to become involved in their children’s learning.

I have been trialling some new approaches to try to encourage these parents to take those first steps in building a positive relationship with the school. To build closer links with ‘hard-to-reach’ parents, I have worked with the attendance officer and other staff to identify parents whose children have poor literacy/numeracy levels, unsatisfactory attendance and/or are regularly excluded.

I have also written to parents in these groups inviting them to come to free lunch events at the college. The letters were followed up with telephone calls to try to persuade the parents to take part. These lunch events were deliberately kept very low key and were very informal.

The timing of these events was carefully planned so that the students would still be in class and not see their parents arriving at the school. I learned that some days of the week were less appealing – such as Mondays, because people on benefits collect them on a Monday.

Some parents work part time and some do not work on Fridays, so lunches are now usually held on Fridays (although it is necessary to vary the days to try to involve as many different parents as possible). A parent suggested the catchy title of ‘Free Lunch Friday’ and this title is now used to promote the lunches.

Feelings of isolation
For the parents who attend, these lunches provide a relaxed opportunity for them to convey how they feel about many aspects of the college. At the lunches some of these parents have confided to each other about their feelings of isolation. Many felt that the college was an unwelcoming place which they usually only visited when they were called to a meeting to discuss their child’s unsatisfactory behaviour or attendance.

Events such as teacher Inset days and academic review days all seemed to some parents like unnecessary interruptions. Not all of them received school newsletters, which led them to complain that they were not aware of events until it was too late.

The lunch events were followed up by meetings between myself and some key members of the college staff who agreed that changes could be made to school procedures. The college now plans to post out school newsletters to ‘targeted’ parents (whose children are either less likely to take them home or have been absent or excluded at the time when the newsletters are given out to their class).

A previous system called ‘Truancy Call’, whereby parents of absent students were automatically telephoned during the school day, was abolished as the school realised that such a system served only to increase the barriers between parents and the school.

Creating a relationship of trust
One long-term result of the lunch events has been that some of these parents now feel comfortable about telephoning me with any questions they may have about the college, thus developing the beginning of a relationship of trust with college staff.

Following a recent advertisement for a parent governor post, parents who have developed a rapport with me now feel sufficiently comfortable to discuss the idea of standing for election.

Other positive effects have been that some of these parents who took that first step by attending the free lunches now feel confident enough to enrol in the free adult education (and Family Learning) courses offered on site. The adult education programme has been largely funded by the local authority adult education service and the Greater Hollington Partnership (a local regeneration pathfinder project) and driven by local demand.

Some courses such as ‘Teenage Behaviour’ and ‘Healthy Eating for You and Your Child’ have been deliberately aimed at trying to engage with the ‘hard-to-reach’ parents who, in some cases, need support with managing their child’s behaviour or even in recognising the effect that healthy food can have in improving their child’s behaviour. Some chose to join introductory computer classes as they increased their awareness that these skills are essential if they are to find work or change jobs.

Working together
To further develop the relationship between the college and its parents, a building on the site has been set aside for community use as a multi-agency hub. This building, which was originally a caretaker’s house, and more recently a base for children with special educational needs, is now being developed as a centre where workers from a range of services, such as the police, the school nurse, the education welfare officer, inclusive learning tutor and Connexions personal adviser are able to work together locally more effectively to support the needs of vulnerable parents and children in the local community.

Already this system of working in close proximity has resulted in some collaborative work. Professionals from these different agencies are now planning a joint parenting course, having all identified a need for such a programme. In the future, other professionals (eg social services) will join this multi-agency team to provide support and a swift referral system for both parents and children in the local community.

Joint initiatives
The Grove was judged by Ofsted in October 2005 to be an ‘effective and improving college’. Ofsted said that ‘Relationships with parents are improving, for example by holding academic review days rather than parents’ evenings’. This in turn has involved more parents in their children’s learning. During the last academic review day, parents were invited to participate in workshops during the day. Topics included smoking cessation, bullying and drug and alcohol abuse. This was a joint initiative between the Grove and the local Primary Care Trust. Although few parents participated in the workshops, it represented a breakthrough into new ways of working with the parents at this school. The Grove will be developing these approaches more in the future.

Although the white paper is welcomed in terms of the higher profile it gives to parents – especially in giving the high profile to parents as equal partners – the challenge will be for schools to involve the hard-to-reach parents/parents who do not see the value of education or feel that the school is not interested in their views.

The Grove has begun this process of building successful relationships with its parents but there is much more work to do. To achieve full success, the plans for involving parents must be fully embedded in the college improvement plan, the community plan, the specialist college plan and the SEF. Engaging parents in their children’s learning is essential to raising standards. Every parent matters.

Profile

The Grove, a specialist maths and computing college, is located in St Leonards-on-Sea, part of the seaside town of Hastings, in East Sussex.
Located on the edge of the suburb of Greater Hollington, the college is in an area of considerable social and economic deprivation. There are a large number of lone parent households where the head of the household is not in work. Child poverty is a major problem. Some households in the area are within the worst 10% nationally for overall deprivation. Specifically, it features among the worst 10% for income, child poverty, education and housing. 

Jenny Townsend runs the Townsend Consultancy, working with schools and their partners to achieve the Extended Schools core offer and the five outcomes of Every Child Matters. For information about the consultancy, please visit http://www.townsendconsult.co.uk/

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