The Department for Education, educational writers and researchers, the NCSL et al work on the premise that all parents are interested in their children’s education. However, I would argue that all parents love their children, but in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation, unemployment, poverty of resources and poverty of hope, many parents have difficulties in supporting the school and their children’s education. The reasons for this are complex, but include:

  • parents’ own negative educational experiences, including leaving school early without qualifications and often early parenting
  • parents perhaps having attended the local secondary school and having negative perceptions of what it was like for them
  • many parents only being happy to go into the primary school, where they know the class teacher and can access them easily. Secondary schools tend to be larger, less personal, complex environments
  • secondary school students typically relishing their independence when going to the ‘big school’ and not wanting their parents taking them to school.

In the Firth Park community, Sheffield, which is in the sixth most deprived political ward in the country and where much of The Full Monty was filmed in 1994, all of these features and more existed.

Our local community is also very parochial, with second- and third-generation unemployment. Some of our families have complex issues and dysfunctionality. For some parents getting through the day/week is a challenge in itself. As a result, the school can be viewed as peripheral to their lives.

 How Firth Park has changed since 1995
 School context in 1995  School context in 2010
Split schools sites 1.5 miles apart, students and staff transported by bus/car two to three times daily. Appalling buildings and outside boys’ toilets on one site One-site, fit-for-purpose school since September 2000
77% whole-school attendance 90% attendance – but we remain a ‘persistant absence monitoring school’
  Lead Extended School for Sheffield since 2003. Open all hours between 7.30am-9pm for student/community learning. Open every holiday (except Christmas) and many weekends
12% 5+ A* – C GCSE results
  • 63% 5+ A*-C GCSEs in 2009 with 24% including English/Maths. CVA 1,039 in 2009, the highest in Sheffield
  • National Challenge School for English and Maths. Target 2010: 70% 5+ A*-C passes with 35% including English and Maths
  • 35% of students enter school aged 11 with level 3 and below in KS2 SATS. Massive literacy challenges in the local community
48% free school meals 39% free school meals (take-up not entitlement), adversely affected by the Job Seekers’ Allowance
26% BME students, mostly asylum seekers/refugees 32% BME students. Our most aspirant and generally successful students. They may experience poverty but tend to have two parents who are keen for their children to succeed in education
50% of students on the SEN Register for learning and/or emotional/behavioural problems. Very poor student behaviour in the lower school in particular 48% of students on SEN Register
Deficit budget Healthy budget
Falling tolls: 1,032 on roll, capacity 1,375 Full in all year groups
Ofsted inspection May 1995 when only KS3 students were seen, as Year 10 were on work experience and Year 11 on study leave. Very poor report. Had this been 1997, the school would have been put into special measures or ‘fresh start’ Ofsted November 2008 found us to be ‘a good school with many outstanding features’
  Performing arts specialist school since 2002
  93% teaching staff. 76% appointed by Mo Laycock since 1996. Total staff complement 182.

How did we start engaging parents?

  • The school’s 1995 Ofsted report was the initial driving force. The school had a poor reputation in some parts of the local estate and we were haemorrhaging able students to other local schools. We had to win our community back.
  • We began by establishing half-termly meetings with the headteachers of our four feeder primary schools, in order to establish a shared vision and purpose. Members of senior leadership team and middle leaders attended assemblies in the primary schools for Year 4, 5 and 6 pupils. We also attended all primary school parents’ evenings.
  • We appointed a primary liaison coordinator, who visited all schools on a weekly basis and established shared projects in learning, as well as summer schools and an extended, more in-depth transition from Year 6 to 7.
  • We began fortnightly coffee mornings for parents, encouraging Year 5-6 parents and our own parents of Years 7-11 to attend. We arranged the initial focus for each meeting, also inviting external speakers into school to help us. From these, parents began to request certain topics, for example, ‘helping my child settle into secondary school’.
  • I visited all of the local shops, supermarkets, garages, pubs and clubs to ascertain the views of local community personnel in respect of Firth Park. This also helped to build bridges and to get partners on board with our ‘community school’ vision.
  • We introduced a parent/community group, ‘Friends of Firth Park School’. A small group initially, we jointly ran summer and Christmas fayres, car boot sales, line dancing and karaoke evenings, etc.
  • Our Year 6-7 parents’ evening in July included a barbeque for parents, PE activities for pupils, raffles etc. These were very popular and broke down some barriers.
  • We tentatively began our ‘Family Learning’ Saturday workshops with a free lunch. Initially we had to work really hard to get parents into the school; in 1996 we had perhaps only 25 to 30 supporting these Family Learning days. In 2010 we have 450+ on a regular basis.

Engaging with BME parents
Our school community includes Asian, Pakistani, African Caribbean, Somali, mixed race and Eastern European families. These parents were not attending our school-based community workshops, therefore we visited their community bases with our BME staff, who were able to converse in their mother tongues. Over time, we won the confidence of BME parents; we organised workshops for them in community buildings where they felt at ease and gradually these parents began to attend school-based workshops.

We also visited other schools with good BME practices in London, Birmingham and Manchester and enhanced our BME workforce in relation to teaching and non-teaching staff.

Becoming more strategic
From our early beginnings and struggles to bring parents and community members on board, we are now in a very different place. The two pivotal strategies to move this along were:

  • Attaining performing arts specialist status in 2002.
  • Attaining extended school status via a bid to Sheffield local authority and the DfES in 2003.

From this time things really took off:

  • We had new buildings for the arts: three music classrooms, two dance studios and two drama bases.
  • Within the family of schools we made some co-appointments in MFL, arts and ICT.
  • We appointed five primary-trained teachers to work on our KS3 thematic curriculum and in English/maths. These have proved to be excellent colleagues, all of whom have been promoted in our school.
  • The family of schools has key staff working together and meeting every half-term. These are truly cross-phase groups who help knit together in meaningful ways our shared community vision and purpose, and comprise:
    • headteachers
    • extended school staff (four in total)
    • arts team
    • literacy and numeracy teams
    • behaviour for learning teams
    • SEN/vulnerable student teams.
  • We reached out to the community and asked for senior citizens, single and disabled community members to engage with us. We now have OAPs helping in school in design and technology, history, paired reading etc. We have a Christmas OAPs’ party in December each year with 100+ senior citizens – a great party and thank you to them, organised by staff and Year 7 students.
  • We hold a family of schools sports day annually for students and their families.
  • We abandoned traditional parents’ evenings and now have a termly progress/review day. All parents and their child have a focused and positive 20-minute meeting with a key member of staff with agreed targets to work on together.
  • We initiated workshops with artists in residence, held in our school for cross-phase primary students.
  • Our family of schools children regularly perform in local venues and at the Crucible/Lyceum theatres.
  • We have a shared family of schools behaviour policy, to aid consistency and support from parents.
  • We introduced adult learning classes, four nights weekly from 2003. Initially this was focused on leisure activities, eg salsa dancing, keep fit, pilates, cookery classes. We now have the latter and more, including GCSE classes in Spanish, ICT, art, English, maths and so on.

Where are we now?

  • Firth Park is now a busy hub for community learning, many weekends and all holidays except Christmas. Forty-four extracurricular classes run each week from 3pm to 5pm. Adult learning is from 5.30pm to 9pm, and we have approximately 250+ adult learners weekly.
  • Family learning weekends take place termly with an average of 450 family learners, aged six months to 80+ years.
  • We have a community theatre group of 50+ actors who meet weekly. These personnel have been meeting for two to three years and although the majority had never acted before, to date they have staged three public productions. Some of these adult actors tell me that this experience has changed their lives forever in respect of their self-esteem and confidence, and several have successfully attained purposeful employment since engaging in the theatre group.
  • Longley Park Sixth Form College opened in 2004 as a new fit-for-purpose building on our old school site. We now have a 0-19 to 90 years educational policy and practice. Some of our parents are now accessing A-Levels at Longley Park and three parents are at Sheffield Hallam University taking degree courses, having begun with us in 2002-3, working towards GCSE passes.
  • We have drama/music/dance productions regularly and a sell-out whole-school production annually.
    We had an ‘Oscars Celebratory Evening’ in June 2010 celebrating students’ achievements and attainment. The evening was punctuated with performing arts presentations by students, who performed to an audience of 700, including students, parents and VIP guests.
  • We have successfully sought a high-profile media strategy for the school. This has enhanced parents’, students’ and community pride in the school. We speak at national conferences on our work and invite high-profile visitors to awards evenings. Tony Blair visited Firth Park for three hours in 2003 and played guitar, with David Blunkett on drums, with our Year 10 band, Jabberwocky. This was featured on the front page of national newspapers and Private Eye.

Next stepsI took early retirement from Firth Park in August 2010, with the school in an excellent position to progress further. Getting parents on board to work with the school and educational aspirations in areas of challenge is hard work. It demands leadership at all levels; tenacity; passion; highs and lows to be accepted; listening skills; not being patronising; and above all, being an ‘inclusive institution’.

There is no magical recipe for engaging hard-to-reach parents. It can be a damaging and disappointing journey at times. Self-belief and resilience are vital. But when it finally works and you can see it and feel it, it is a joyous feeling.