Tags: Headteacher | Parental Involvement | School Leadership & Management

Headteacher Jim Donnelly looks at some of the ways parental involvement in schools can be increased.

Schools have recently tried to get parents involved in their children’s education in various ways, particularly in the past 20 years or so. Prior to that, most schools felt that the only time they needed to involve parents in school life was when their child was about to be expelled (or, in extreme cases, after the expulsion had been carried out!) or when the school wanted to raise funds for a minibus or other similar items. An annual written report and perhaps an occasional parents’ evening was about the limit of involvement for most parents.

Times have changed considerably and schools now actively look for ways to involve parents more widely and see them as a vital part of the ‘virtuous triangle’ of child, school and parent. It is only when this triangle fits together that children make real and substantial progress. This desire will be heightened in the aftermath of the recent white paper: Higher Standards, Better Schools for All: More choice for parents and pupils.

There are various levels at which parents can be ‘engaged’ by schools.

Keeping parents informed The government is making much of the importance of parents these days. Schools have been aware of this fact for much longer. Many schools, particularly primary schools, produce regular newsletters that give parents general information about the school and/or their child’s class. These are usually produced in school and can, given the advances in printing technology, include photos. They are usually sent by pupil post.

More specific information about individual children is usually communicated by means of a written report (perhaps once a year) and a parent consultation evening or day (perhaps once a year, either linked to the written report or at a separate time).

Some schools are now going beyond this and sending reports up to six times per year. These reports are likely to be produced using management information software. It is debatable how cost-effective these are (when measured against learning gains) but with the move towards ‘assessment for learning’, it is relatively easy to press a button and produce a report. It is also possible to post these online so that parents can see them via the internet (attendance figures can also be communicated in this way).

School websites can be useful in providing general information for parents, including term dates.

Governing bodies and PTAs One step up from informing parents is to actively involve them in running the school. Since local management of schools (LMS) was introduced, the role of governors in our educational system has been much enhanced and there is a legal requirement to have a substantial proportion of parents on governing bodies. In some cases, former parents have also been coopted: this means that discussion and decisions are focused very clearly on the needs of the pupils, which must be a good thing.

A large number of active PTAs still exist, which can act as recruiting grounds for future governors and/or as an informal contact point between schools and parents. They do, in some cases, also raise substantial sums of money for the school.

‘It is easy to forget that many parents, particularly but not exclusively in urban areas, may have found their own schooling to be a very unpleasant and unproductive experience’

Learning for parents Some schools have gone beyond the traditional and have put on learning courses for their parents (and other adults in the community). The rationale for this is that if parents are attending lessons in their children’s school then they feel as if it is more relevant to them. It also provides a role model for the children, who can see ‘lifelong learning’ and the need to work at learning in practice in their own homes.

Courses for parents can range from the vocational (eg English, mathematics), through learning for a specific purpose (eg languages, counselling) to leisure courses (eg flower arranging, photography). It is true, of course, that what may start as a leisure course, such as photography, may lead to a vocational course later.

It is easy to forget that many parents, particularly but not exclusively in urban areas, may have found their own schooling to be a very unpleasant and unproductive experience. In these cases, it is vital that schools become more imaginative about what they need to do if the parents are to be both willing and capable of supporting their children’s learning. The following gives an example of how one group of urban schools has developed practices in this area.

The ‘Horizon’ group A group of schools in Sefton (mainly primary schools, but including one secondary school) formed a Networked Learning Community in 2003, under the aegis of the National College for School Leadership. The focus of the group is ‘family learning’.

This is based on involving parents in learning, both for themselves and for their children. This means that the needs of parents have to be identified and then efforts made to meet them. The group also shares experience across its constituent schools by ensuring that key staff visit each other’s schools and that joint training activities are arranged. These schools find that once parents are given the confidence to come into school the benefits to the children are very clear. The parents feel more confident about helping their children and this helps to highlight the importance of schooling within the whole family.

One of the activities involved 10 headteachers undertaking a study visit to the North West Thames District School Board in Ontario, Canada, to look at practice there. The schools in Ontario are not ‘locally managed’ in the way schools have been in this country since 1991 but they do actively involve their parents in schools. The headteachers were able to share similar experiences but there was one school that has taken the involvement of parents a step further, in requiring parents who send their children to the school to sign up to help in the classroom for a set number of hours! This is proving very popular with some parents and they are very enthusiastic about the project. It will be interesting to see if this idea catches on; it provides food for thought.

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – Nov 2005

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