A Case Study: Anita Brown, Deputy Headteacher, Ponteland Community High School, Northumberland.

Ponteland Community High School recognises the important role parents have to play in modelling learning dispositions and thinking skills that will help to develop their children’s progress. Staff believe that schools can empower families by helping them to understand the change of emphasis from what children should learn, to knowing how they learn and how stimulation at home can encourage curiosity, creativity, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, thereby supporting student achievement. However, the school also recognises that it is at an early stage of the journey towards a more equal partnership with parents.

The approach taken to move us along the road has involved setting up an engaging parents forum and a variety of collaborative student/parent/staff research projects on parental engagement, learning to learn, and curriculum review and development.

School context

Ponteland High is a high achieving 13–18 mixed-sex school in Northumberland, with 1,205 students on roll, including 395 post-16. It was designated a specialist language college in 1995. Compared with national averages, the percentage of students eligible for free school meals is very low, as is the percentage with statements of special educational needs (SEN) and additional learning needs. The percentage of students of minority ethnic origin is below the national average, and the proportion whose first language is not English is very low.

An Ofsted inspection in January 2006 recognised Ponteland Community High as a good school, but identified the need to consult systematically with parents to ensure that they are more involved in the school’s development as an area in which the school could improve still further. The school had already identified this need in its development plan, but this outside confirmation of the issue acted as a real spur.

Parental influence on their child’s learning

In the first few years of life, parents and the extended family are the prime motivators and inspirations in a child’s life. The importance of this relationship carries on into the early years at school, where what goes on in the classroom is almost a development and extension of home. Parents can be involved in their child’s early school life with confidence as the balance between home and school probably swings in their favour.

However, by the time youngsters have moved into the secondary years, the situation has reversed. Families may doubt the authenticity of any invitation from the school asking them to become involved or they may doubt their own ability to participate.

However, there is plenty of research to show that parental involvement does have an important role to play. For instance, a study by Catsambis (2001) concluded that:

High levels of parental expectation, consistent encouragement and actions to enhance learning opportunities in the home were all positively associated with students’ high aspirations and college enrolments — this regardless of students’ socio-economic status or ethnic background.

The Harvard Family Research Project (2005) found:

Family involvement promotes school success for every child of every age.

Desforges and Abouchaar (2003) conclude that:

Parental involvement continues to have a significant effect through the age range, although the impact for older children becomes more evident in staying-on rates and educational aspirations than as measured achievement. Of the many forms of parental involvement, it is the at-home relationships and modelling of aspirations that play the major part in impact on school outcomes.

Schools need to make engaging parents in learning in an effective, constructive, collaborative way a priority, not least because of the significant impact this can then have on students’ achievements.

Improving parental engagement

Having identified the need to engage parents more fully as a priority, in May 2006 Ponteland headteacher Stephen Prandle tasked me as deputy headteacher to identify ways in which to make this happen. I created a programme of internal consultative and professional development activities and collaborative home-school events, with clear deadlines, success criteria and monitoring and evaluation processes.

One aim of the programme was to raise awareness among all staff of the potential benefits arising from engaging parents more fully in their youngsters’ learning. Another was to raise the same awareness among parents, at the same time as developing a much closer relationship between home and school.

Teacher event

Initially, a teacher event took place, with the intention of encouraging colleagues to think about parental engagement. The school worked on this with consultant Julie McGrane, from the Leading Learning Group. Through small group discussions, prioritising activities and plenaries, we identified a list of potential hurdles to engagement with parents, such as time and resources. We also identified pitfalls, such as overcoming the ‘blame’ culture and difficult parents. We will focus on developing ideas for overcoming these hurdles at future events.

Involving parent target group

Next, a target group was created from parents of Year 9 and Year 10 students, as their youngsters would be most affected by the project’s outcomes. An analysis of postcodes ensured that initial participants were not drawn from the same area or socio-economic group. Personal invitations were sent out to a random cross-section of 20 parents, six of whom were able to attend. The intention was to develop a core group to kick-start the parental engagement process and act as ambassadors to other parents, encouraging others to get involved later in the process. The invitation asked parents to consider helping the school answer the question, ‘What can we do better together, than we can do alone?’ The letter included a programme for a two-hour session, following a buffet lunch also attended by their children.

Prioritising activities and discussions for the parents and staff attending the session were led by the consultant. A key topic looked at where responsibility for a child’s underachievement lay. This was explored using a ‘Mystery’ activity (see the article ‘Achieving true parental involvement’ for more details), the results of which formed the basis for a group discussion on the complex nature of responsibility. Participants agreed that a strong relationship based on mutual understanding and support between home and school appeared to be essential in helping to address under-achievement. Participants agreed the value of identifying exactly what each wanted from the relationship, particularly the importance of agreeing mutual priorities and strategies for achieving them.

These themes were explored at a further event a month later, with the school flying solo, independently of the consultant.

At this event, participants discussed three main topics:

  • what are the key ingredients in developing mutual respect, trust and understanding?
  • what are our mutual priorities?
  • making it happen.

The session involved a blend of discussion, a ‘diamond nine’ activity in which participants prioritised different components of an effective, trust-based relationship (see below for details of what such an activity involves), flipchart and post-it sticker brainstorming, and compiling findings into Venn diagrams.

Diamond nine activity

Diamond nine is a workshop tool designed to help a group of participants to prioritise a list of issues  collectively. Participants are given a set of nine issues, each one on a piece of card. They are then asked to position these on a diamond grid in order of importance, with the most important item placed at the top of the diamond, and moving down the diamond in descending importance. This requires them to discuss as a group which issues are most important and why so that collectively they decide on their priorities.

Before the event, staff with an active interest in parental engagement had completed a diamond nine activity in their own time, and the results were considered during the engaging parents session. They placed parental support at the top of their ‘want’ list. Consequently, a number of staff priorities focused on ideas for equipping parents to provide more support for their child’s learning.

The issues staff gave as priorities are listed in the right-hand side of the Venn diagram at the top of page 9.

Parents placed communication at the top of their ‘want’ list, as a means of developing a relationship based on mutual respect, trust and understanding. Consequently, a number of their priorities focused on ideas for clarifying and developing two-way lines of communication.

The parents’ priorities are listed in the left-hand side of the Venn diagram at the top of page 9.

The Venn diagram was created as a group activity to identify mutual priorities. The discussion this generated enabled participants to understand their different perspectives and come to share many of the priorities identified during the session, moving from Venn diagram 1 (pre-discussion and shown in the box at the top of page 9) to Venn diagram 2 (post-discussion, and shown in the box at the bottom of page 9).

Arising from the discussions came a clear reminder that it is easy for schools to forget how baffling the secondary school infrastructure might be for parents. Issues of whom to contact over what, how to distinguish between urgent and less urgent queries and by when to expect a response, all need to be clarified for parents.

Arising directly from the engaging parent sessions, Ponteland High has introduced the initiatives listed below.

New initiatives

  • More privacy at parents’ evenings (beginning with Year 11, November)
  • Improved appointments system for parents’ evenings (beginning with Year 11, November)
  • Half-termly progress reports to pupils (beginning October half-term)
  • Appointment of parent liaison/ attendance and behaviour officers to begin during Spring 2007 term
  • Parents contacted with request for their preferred form of communication, and an emailing list is now in place (welcome message sent out in November)

The senior leadership team (SLT) has agreed that parents should be involved in improving parents’ handbooks — this will be managed as set out below.

Involving parents in improving parents’ handbooks

  • An assistant headteacher is to liaise with parent participants in the group over content and structure of a parents’ handbook for prospective Year 9 students
  • Two parents are to speak with other parents (and possibly prospective parents) about content and structure of the Year 9 handbook
  • A parent will conduct a student voice activity with a Year 9 tutor group on what they and their parents would find useful
  • Another assistant headteacher is to liaise with parent participants over content and structure of parents’ handbook for prospective post-16 students
  • A parent is to speak with other post-16 parents (and possibly prospective parents) about content and structure
  • Handbooks will be co-authored by parents and staff
  • Parent participants will be invited to take part in a special launch of the new handbooks to prospective Year 9 and post-16 parents

Future events

In the months ahead, we will be using a variety of ideas and approaches to promote greater understanding, trust and support between home and school, and to involve parents more in their children’s development as effective learners.

I will be working with the headteacher and other colleagues, parents and students on themes for future sessions. These are likely to include:

  • reviewing the home-school agreement
  • developing parent mentors with the training and support needed to help engage and empower other parents.

I have created three new research teams involving parents, pupils and staff. From January 2007 they have been looking into:

  • learning to learn
  • curriculum review and development
  • thinking skills and learning dispositions. 

For example, some students do not believe their parents will be able to help them become more effective learners. Others are concerned about the opinion of their peers if their parents are involved more in school. Some fear that their parents’ involvement will undermine their increased independence. Involving parents and students as co-researchers, alongside staff, to explore the accuracy of such perceptions can be an effective way to identify strategies for breaking down any such barriers to parental engagement. Activities could include both students and parents carrying out independent surveys of others in their peer groups to ascertain opinions on involvement with homework, areas where support would be valued, and how this could best be delivered. Teachers could look into what strategies colleagues have found effective in enabling more effective parental engagement.

Representatives of all three partners can then compare responses of the three surveys to identify similarities and differences and then propose ways of addressing any issues raised, such as workshops, leaflets, articles in the school newsletter and website, and so on.

The outcomes of such workshops will feed back into other areas of school life, leading to practical leaflets or school website pages available to all parents and students, for example. The hope is that because parents have had involvement in the content of these materials, they will hold more status and credibility with other parents than if they had been created solely by the school.

Inviting involvement from all

We take care to ensure that an open invitation is extended to all parents to participate in the programme, suggest topics for discussion and to attend sessions of specific interest to them, to avoid perceptions of any clique or inner-circle of parents developing.

As parents become more confident in their understanding and skills, their involvement will, hopefully, evolve to include devising and leading activities. Outcomes of every event will be available in a special section of the school website and in the school’s newsletter, with an invitation to comment on this to parents to further encourage their involvement.

Anita Brown, Deputy Headteacher, Ponteland Community High School,
Northumberland

References

  • Catsambis, S. (2001) ‘Expanding knowledge of parental involvement in children’s secondary education: connections with high school seniors’ academic success’, Social Psychology of Education, vol 5, pp149–77
  • Desforges, C. and Abouchaar, A. (2003) The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: a literature review, DfES
  • Harvard Family Research Project (2005) ‘National outreach through the family involvement network’, Research Digest, May 2005, Harvard Family Research Project