An effective home-school partnership is vital for giving learners the best opportunities possible. Jane Golightly discusses why it matters and how it can be built in Primary Leadership Focus

I was on a train to London this week and, glancing through a Saturday newspaper supplement, my eyes were drawn to an advertisement promotion for the charity Action for Children. ‘Resilience and self-esteem are key to coping with life chances,’ said the caption to the accompanying photograph. The feature showed all too starkly that for a variety of reasons, many children in the UK don’t enjoy emotional wellbeing. Unfortunately, this can have as great an impact on a child’s development and achievement as a physical disease. We, who work in schools, have a major role to play in supporting children develop into emotionally healthy young people. The five outcomes of Every Child Matters all support the building of emotional health but to really make a difference we need the co-operation and support of parents. In this e-bulletin and the next, I will look in detail at the importance of the home-school partnership.

Why does the relationship with parents matter?
Most schools want to have a good relationship with parents and families. Their co-operation and support can make a real difference to how children see themselves as learners and engage in learning. But the ways parents interact with the school depend on the messages you communicate about the relationship you want to have with them. How do your parents interpret your school? Distant? Formal? Or over-familiar?

Perhaps you are a school that prides itself on an ‘open door policy’. I must confess that I frequently see this mentioned in school documentation but I have never fully understood what it means. Headteachers¸ even with the best of intentions cannot be available all the time for parents during school hours. Maybe ‘open door’ means that the school is a listening school and wants to hear what parents have to say. Probably your school is somewhere between the two; not inaccessible but not raising expectations of being available at all times. Whatever your stance, the relationship you establish and maintain with parents really does matter. The reputation of a school within the community can be made or broken by parents’ conversation at the corner shop, at mother and toddler group, at coffee mornings and at playgroup. Every wise school leader knows that in order to ensure that every child makes the best possible progress this is one relationship that is worth keeping under surveillance. Pause for a moment and consider where parents feature in the school’s strategic plan. Are they there as a priority? Is the relationship monitored, reviewed and evaluated?

What can we do to establish co-operation and support?
All parents want the same things for their children. They want them to grow up happy, healthy and able to get a job and sustain good relationships. The difference is that not all parents believe that this is the future for their children. They want to believe it can happen but their own life experiences have proved that this is not the case.

Professor Charles Desforges has researched and written extensively about the influence and impact of parents on children’s achievement, attainment and aspiration. In his research paper, The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: a Literature Review Professor Desforges is very clear that:

‘…the extent and form of parental involvement is strongly influenced by family social class, maternal levels of education, material deprivation, maternal psycho-social health and single parent statues and, to a lesser degree, by family ethnicity.’

For us, that means we need to really get to know our parent community. We need to avoid making assumptions but instead try to understand why parents act in the ways they do; then we can plan to respond in ways that meet their needs.

Practical ways to build a good relationship with parents
Let’s consider ‘School A’ where parents have very low levels of literacy and a number of parents are difficult and hard to reach. In the school attainment is low but leadership and pupils’ progress is very good. School leaders are investing time and resources – financial and human – to draw parents in to the children’s learning.

The school keeps written information to the bare minimum. It recognises the challenges parents have with the written word. It understands that parents are not confident writing and reading and can react aggressively or be very demanding if they feel that something is unjust.

An emphasis is placed on talking directly to parents. Teaching assistants and the learning mentor meet and greet parents and children at the start of the school day and bid them farewell at the end of the day. They are in the playground before school starts and ends, on door-duty talking to parents, telling them what is happening, what is coming up in the near future, talking about and sharing children’s work, giving good news stories. This approach is making a real difference and the school can see the impact on children’s attendance, progress and interest in learning.

Try describing your school’s parent community as a case study in fifty words. What are you doing to secure co-operation and support and how do you know that it is making a difference? No one is saying it is easy to engage parents but we need to get much better at taking a fresh look at what we do; well-established practice and habits can lose their effectiveness. Moving forward may mean redesigning the parent partnership policy but this will bring significant benefits to the life chances for children.

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education