Who are the parents who evade all forms of contact from schools and why do they choose to exist at the fringes of their child’s education? Jo McShane investigates

Another Year 9 parents’ evening is coming to a close and the headteacher has just finished checking the attendance figures. ‘Same old thing!’ she mutters to her deputy with a frown. ‘The ones you really need to see never turn up.’ Hard-to-reach parents again. Those somewhat sinister and shadowy characters who lurk around the periphery of their child’s learning, and perhaps society as a whole. Who are they and why do they choose such self-imposed banishment from an education system that is calling them with arms seemingly outstretched?

Their identity is complex and membership of this group is made up of a combination of factors such as social class, gender, single parent status, ethnicity, postcode and prior learning. Though various studies have led to definitions of their characteristics and behaviors, it is important to note that there is not one single factor which determines the nature of the ‘hard-to-reach’. Levitas (1998) defines them as those who are socially excluded and who need to be ‘brought in’ and re-engaged as stakeholders.

Such stakeholders have indeed become the target of various interventions and there is a growing awareness of the potential impact of parents on both educational attainment and progression to higher education. But surely there is only so much educators can do to reach out to those who seem to keep edging further away?

Hard-to-reach schools?

Perhaps there is another way of looking at this. Jill Crozier and Jane Davies (2007) argue that rather than parents being hard to reach, it is frequently the schools themselves that inhibit accessibility for certain parents. In their two-year long study of home-school relations, they cite Bernstein’s assertion that schools are more consonant with middle class values and ways of being. Expectations projected on parents also render certain types of parents ‘invisible’ in terms of what they have to offer (Crozier, 2001).

I asked a white working-class female about her experiences of growing up in a ‘hard-to-reach’ family. Maddie told me that the class divide was evident from primary age. The middle class mothers were always much more visible, bringing in yoghurt pots for craft sessions and home-grown apples for the harvest festival. They talked loudly in groups at the entrance to the school gate. Maddie felt ‘bad’ for her Mum, who wasn’t ‘like them’.

Carole Farrar provides us with a truly grass-roots dimension to the idea of school accessibility. In an article entitled Communicating with Parents: Hidden Messages she explores the idea that the school setting can give away a multitude of signals which impact on the message received by parents. She recommends a review of signage to ensure that key information is conveyed both in Braille, pictorially and in locally used languages in order to send out a message that everyone is welcome.

In addition, Farrar recommends the provision of a place for parents within the school, to reinforce the message about how much parents are valued. She recommends attention is paid to comfortable seating, a coffee table and a range of up-to date leaflets and pupil work to provide a welcoming waiting or meeting space.

Engaging the hard to reach

Jenny Townsend of The Grove school in East Sussex has also trialed a range of interventions aimed at improving parental participation as part of a wider ‘extended schools’ strategy. She defines hard-to-reach parents as those ‘who resist efforts to interact with the school and come to see the headteacher only when they are summoned because their child has become involved in a serious misdemeanour.’ Her recognition of the need for a range of strategies aimed at moving the school towards the hard to reach supports Crozier and Davies’ assertion that home-school agreements may not be enough to fill the void between certain schools and certain families. Her interventions include:

  • working with the attendance officer to identify parents whose children have poor literacy/numeracy skills/ unsatisfactory attendance and are regularly excluded
  • the provision of low-key ‘free lunches’ for parents timed to coincide with predominant patterns of part-time working. Such sessions have become a popular forum in which parents and carers can openly share their perceptions of school
  • the abolition of the ‘truancy call’ system, which served only to increase barriers between parents and the school.

Townsend has developed a relationship of trust between parents and staff which has led to increased participation in adult, community and family learning opportunities on offer. This confirms the enormous potential for increased social capital that can be generated by making school accessible to the reluctant.

The importance of engaging the hard to reach is further underlined by the educational gap between the ‘school readiness’ and learning chances of white middle-class children and others identified by Vincent and Ball in 2001. This compels us to keep on reaching beyond the divide. Perhaps you could argue that it is a parent’s right to remain in the fringes and to inhabit the shadows, but when it comes to then impact on the life chances of their offspring, how real is this choice?


  • Crozier, G and Davies, J (2007) ‘Hard to Reach Parents of Hard to Reach Schools? A Discussion of Home-School Relations, with Particular Reference to Bangladeshi and Pakistani Parents’, British Educational Research Journal, 33 (3), 295-313
  • Bernstein, B (1975) Class Codes and Control, vol III, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
  • Levitas, R (1998) The Inclusive Society? Social Exclusion and New Labour, London, Macmillan
  • Vincent, C and Ball, SJ (2001) ‘A Market in Love? Choosing Pre-School Childcare’, British Educational Research Journal, 27 (5), 633-651