How do you create meaningful and sustainable relationships with parents? Dr Jean de Rijke, developer of the Effective Partnerships with Parents (EPPa) strategy, shares her expertise

How can schools already struggling with over-crowded timetables find time to build productive partnerships with parents and carers? How can schools engage parents to raise pupil attainment and improve behaviour?

The EPPa strategy was designed to explore these questions and the potential of closer partnerships between schools, families and communities.

The EPPa strategy and subsequent toolkit evolved as the result of an action research project involving a wide range of schools in the south-west of England, Tower Hamlets and Newham. The findings were evaluated and this formed the basis of the EPPa Toolkit and Strategy.

What is EPPa?
Since 2003, schools across the country have been using EPPa to help them develop a more strategic approach to working with families. Using the EPPa strategy, schools have been able to recruit support from the wider community to build vital links with other organisations, which in turn helps to encourage greater parental interest in learning.

Using the guidelines in the EPPa toolkit, schools recruit members from the community, parent body and staff to join an EPPa ‘action team’. This is essentially a formally constituted management group of voluntary elected stakeholders interested in promoting learning communities. The role of the EPPa action team is to identify, develop and implement agreed projects.

It is neither a complaints tribunal for parents, nor a mere discussion forum for parents run by the school. The action team does not deliver professional services such as family learning or parenting workshops but can identify providers of such services as well as manage, administer and identify funding sources for the projects. Parent and community volunteers, rather than teachers, provide the leadership of the action team. School staff and governors are invited to participate but need take no responsibility for continuity or coordination of projects (with the exception of one senior school manager who must be an active member of the EPPa team). This parent-led approach challenges some preconceived ideas about the roles of parents and schools but, working in this way, EPPa teams send out positive and inclusive signals to the community and the wider parent body about the way that the school values and respects parents.

Who is involved?
An EPPa action team usually consists of about eight members that include parents, one school SMT/SLT member, governors and a wide range of staff (eg teachers, administrative, SEN or other ancillary staff), plus community representatives who may, for example, come from faith groups or family centres. Having school administrative staff, school governors and SEN staff on the EPPa action team has given a great sense of continuity to project work in many schools.

In the early stages, the parent members are likely to be ‘the usual suspects’ but, as the team evolves, ‘harder-to-reach’ parents become engaged (often through participation in EPPa projects) and may take key roles. When first recruiting members for the action team, it is almost inevitable that it will be the same group of parents who are known to ‘volunteer for everything’ that are approached to form the EPPa team. However, although they are likely to feel that this is ‘one more thing’ for them to tackle when they first hear about EPPa, once they understand the different way of working that the EPPa strategy brings with it, many parents, especially parent governors, become very enthusiastic. More than one governor has been heard to say that the EPPa action team was what they had always hoped governing would be like!

It is imperative that at least one member of the school SMT (usually a deputy or vice principal at secondary school stage) plays an active role as an ordinary member (but not the chair) on the EPPa team for several very good reasons. Without SMT representation on the EPPa team, members will not have senior representation from the professional teaching body at the school and this may lead to complications and misunderstandings about what the EPPa team can expect from the school staff. In addition to this vital role, school SMT membership ensures that the school’s perspective is always contributed to discussion when projects are being decided. Delegating this role to a junior member of staff could mean that valuable time of the EPPa team members is wasted while ideas are relayed to the school SMT and then brought back to the EPPa team. This sort of prolonged delay will effectively discourage participation in the EPPa team.

What do EPPa action teams do?
Once established, the EPPa action team’s role is to consult widely with the learning community, identify strengths and challenges, decide priorities, plan projects, recruit support (including any necessary funding) in order to implement projects, evaluate outcomes and then decide the next steps.

Consultation with parents, school staff, governors and the community is at the heart of effective partnerships. By consulting widely and carefully with all parents, EPPa action teams devise projects that are successful in terms of responding to local need and engaging more parents in their own and their children’s learning.

EPPa action teams have undertaken a wide range of projects. Some have taken years to implement and have provided schools with additional practical resources, eg renovating unused spaces to provide a half-way house between school and the local community where families were generally wary of coming into the school itself.

Other projects have been more modest but have had a positive and lasting impact on the way the school is viewed by parents and the local community, eg reviewing induction procedures and consultation to make the school more inclusive and welcoming to all parents. Yet other projects have directly influenced children’s learning or parental involvement with learning, eg before- and after-school clubs, which school staff say help to raise achievement and improve children’s behaviour, and family learning and parenting/life skills workshops, which are appreciated by staff, parents and students alike.

Although secondary schools face additional challenges, in terms of engaging parents, EPPa action teams have demonstrated that with perseverance it is possible to involve more parents and carers at secondary level. This is often most easily achieved by working with parents and pupils while they are still involved with the primary phase.

EPPa transition projects have included:

  • Promoting the ‘school family’ ethos at the induction events for Year 5 or year 6 parents. After the formal meeting with the headteacher and other staff (which might include secretarial, janitorial and catering staff) ‘new’ parents are shown around the school building by ‘old’ parents recruited by the EPPa action team. Time is allowed for informal parent-to-parent chat over a cup of tea (without the presence of school staff), when the new parents can raise any issues that they may think too trivial to raise with staff. This also gives the action team parents a chance to ‘lead by example’ and promote home-school partnership as well as raise awareness among new parents about the vital role that they can continue to play in their child’s education.
  • Offering ‘parent mentors’ to new parents. Some secondary school action team parents have been willing to act as mentors so that parents of primary school children about to transfer can contact them if they have concerns. For example, there may be niggling queries about the uniform, school meals or even the term start date that arise during the school holiday and it can make all the difference to a ‘new’ child or their parent if they can have their concerns answered quickly by a friendly parent on the end of a telephone or email.
  • Establishing email links between primary phase and secondary Year 7 students. An ‘e-buddy’ scheme can be set up so that pupils in Years 5 and 6 are able to raise queries with students already at the secondary school.
  • Cluster primary and secondary schools working together providing a calendar of workshops to encourage parents and others to visit the school buildings and locations. In one case, workshops were diverse and have included football coaching with the local city football team, heritage trails around the area organised by the local history society, home decorating tips in store at B&Q, cycle maintenance at the local bike shop, parenting workshops and photography sessions as well as more orthodox learning opportunities such as IT sessions in the school computer suites and library sessions to promote family reading. Many of the workshops were held in the secondary school so that primary school families became familiar with the ‘big school’. The workshops also acted as taster sessions so that parents and carers who wanted to follow up the workshops with more in-depth sessions could do so. As a result, parenting and IT workshops were organised for parents and carers in the schools.

Building community partnerships
Action teams have embedded new links for schools within their communities by coordinating and undertaking projects with a wide range of organisations in the public, commercial and voluntary sector. Projects to support learning and promote the ECM five key outcomes have included support from parenting organisations, Campaign for Learning, Learning through Landscapes, family learning services, local heritage, sport and arts groups, nutrition, health and environmental advisers, Basic Skills Agency and the volunteer bureaux.

By helping to bridge the gap between schools, families and the local community, EPPa action teams create new partnerships where there are potentially longer-term gains to be had for schools wanting a more inclusive and supportive relationship with their communities.

Langdon Park Community College

Langdon Park secondary school, in Tower Hamlets, established its EPPa action team in 2005 at a time when the school was undergoing major refurbishment. By prioritising parental involvement, the school aimed to gain greater support from families that usually step back when children reach secondary school age. Their first project was a very successful ‘Give and Take’ day that extended the recycling work already in progress at the school. This project engaged parents on the action team with organising and implementing a complex plan that enabled local people to exchange unwanted household and other goods in the school grounds. The action team worked with environmental agencies and local authority groups to make the day run smoothly by arranging the collection and removal of goods to and from homes and the school.

The Give and Take day succeeded in reaching the action team’s target audience of families who do not normally come to the school. It raised awareness about the school’s environmental policy and created positive feelings about the school site. The project directly involved students at several levels (eg in designing posters and in citizenship exercises, such as volunteering on the day).

Many parents were keen to repeat this particular event and others are enthusiastic to take part in new projects. Through helping other parents and meeting local need, parent EPPa team members (some of whom had previously been regarded as ‘hard-to-reach’ parents) have tapped into local training resources and have developed new skills that will allow the action team to tackle future projects with confidence.

In the spring of 2008 Langdon Park opened its new parents’ room.

Queen Elizabeth Community Technology College

After consultation, the EPPa action team at the community college applied for funding to the Community Fund to run two life-skills workshops: one for parents of teenagers and another especially for parents of children with SEN. More than 300 parents attended from the college and local feeder primary schools.

Because the action team recognised that students’ behavioural problems identified in the secondary school had begun much earlier, they also seed-funded parenting classes for families with toddlers in the local health centre. 

EPPa teams often work closely with school PTAs but they are constituted differently. This means they can access wider funding opportunities and can also fund projects that are unlikely to be supported by PTA constitutions.

Parkside Community Technology College

Parkside has had an EPPa action team since 1999, when the school became part of a new Education Action Zone. The college was keen to engage parents with the community regeneration process to ensure that parents and carers had their say in its future development. Community organisations, parents and staff have worked together on the EPPa team over the years and responded to local need by providing newsletters, adult learning initiatives (eg ICT), creative arts taster sessions and days celebrating cultural diversity in the community. When consulted about their needs, parents of children at risk of being excluded requested workshops to help them support their children and subsequently all parents reported feeling more confident about coping with children’s behavioural problems. In June 2006 the EPPa team organised a ‘Scrap Yard Challenge’ event aimed at engaging fathers and the local community. Thirteen family and community teams registered to participate in an exciting project that culminated in a race through the school grounds where the audience and entrants included fathers and carers who had previously been regarded as ‘hard to reach’.

Funding matters! EPPa teams do not use school funds to resource projects. Because they are constituted as community groups, EPPa action teams have been able to access funds not normally available to schools. Funding has come from diverse sources including the Community Fund (National Lottery), BT, local regeneration funds, New Deal for Communities, and local radio and media, as well as help in kind from businesses and banks. Funding applications, completed and submitted by action teams and involving school staff in a minimal way, have supported many ‘extended schools’ projects.

Top tips for effective parent partnerships

  • Change the way you think about parental involvement. No matter how many ‘hard-to-reach’ parents you can engage, there will inevitably be harder-to-reach ones: it helps to think in terms of ‘frozen-out’ parents many of whom can be ‘thawed’ when the climate gets warmer. In reality, many of the so-called ‘hard-to-reach parents’ do engage but if we refer to them as if they are a stubbornly immovable solid mass it is easy to overlook the gains we are making.
  • Go where the parents are when you want to engage them in consultations, eg children’s performances, parent-teacher consultation evenings, celebrations, assemblies, sports days and careers days, rather than organising coffee mornings or similar social events to bring them in especially. Parent-to-parent surveys conducted on the spot are more successful than postal questionnaires.
  • Find out what the parents want and need rather than second guessing what you think they need. Be prepared to start engaging them through diverse means, not necessarily directly with ‘learning’ straight away.
  • Work with the ‘usual suspects’ to reach parents who do not normally engage. The parents who ‘show up for everything’, ‘the same old parents’ can be your best allies in trying to understand the barriers to wider participation and can recruit parents who are less confident.
  • Target grandparents, carers and significant adults who can be as supportive as busy parents and often have more time and sometimes more patience than over-stretched parents.
  • Do not forget the ‘f’ word! The needs of fathers can be overlooked when we talk about ‘parents’ if what we really mean is ‘mothers’.
  • Do not underestimate the size of the attitudinal and cultural shifts that may be required from parents as well as teachers. Be prepared for some challenging discussions and long-term commitment. The school’s agenda may not look like the parents’ agenda initially but open and frank discussions can lead to sustainable family and community involvement that bring long-term benefits for all learners.
  • Trust parents and community members to lead projects but ensure that one SMT member is actively engaged in discussions and that all staff and governors are supportive and informed about the school’s strategy for family involvement.
  • Persevere, persevere, persevere!

For more information about EPPa