For the families of children with SEN and disabilities, positive relationships between school staff and parents is an especially important issue. This SENCO Week considers how SENCOs can engage with parents and carers

The commitment to giving parents more say about provision for their children was reflected in the Children’s Plan published in December 2007, which promised to introduce measures such as :

  • parents to be contacted by a member of staff from the secondary school before their child transfers
  • parents to be invited to information sessions at the new school
  • every child to have a personal tutor who acts as a main contact for parents
  • parents to receive regular updates on their child’s attendance, behaviour and progress in learning
  • parents’ councils to be set up to ensure a ‘parent voice’ in school
  • complaints from parents to be handled in an open and straightforward way.

You may be doing all of this and more; where a child has a statement of special educational need and other agencies are involved in supporting him, there will invariably be regular and useful contact with parents. But what about the large numbers of children who have no statement but are at school action or school action plus levels and would benefit from parental support that reinforced what the school is trying to do? Too often these parents, for a variety of reasons, are not as involved as they could be in their child’s education. What can be done? First, it’s useful to understand some of the reasons why parents may not be enthusiastic about getting involved:

  • they may have had less-than-positive experiences themselves at school and still be carrying around some negative feelings
  • they can feel intimidated by the school building, the officiousness of admin staff, the ‘superiority’ of teaching staff and senior managers (I have met plenty of primary school teachers who were anxious about attending meetings at their child’s secondary school. If they feel like this what is it like for parents who haven’t been successful at school themselves, who haven’t any recent experience of schools and education ?)
  • they may lack confidence in talking with professional people, especially if their literacy skills are weak or their grasp of spoken English is poor
  • they may have difficulty in getting to school because of child care, transport, work commitments
  • there may have been negative experiences with members of staff in school, or at the child’s previous school
  • they may feel that their child’s difficulties reflect badly on themselves as parents, that they are ‘to blame’
  • sometimes circumstances at home are so difficult that parents simply get worn down by it all.

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of parents do want their children to be happy and to do well at school, so we need to work on ways of meeting and involving them, such as:

  • Make a home visit. Meeting parents on their own territory can make a big difference and there will then be a ‘friendly face’ to give them moral support at parents evening or reviews. This may be the SENCO or another member of staff, an LSA, TA or another parent. Take an interpreter or signer along if this will help to put parents at ease.
  • Use a comfortable area for meetings in school – a family or community room, staff room, library (preferably with adult-size chairs and a cup of tea). Or consider using a different venue like the local community centre, public library or café. Make them feel welcome and valued. Respect confidentiality and ensure that conversations are private.
  • Encourage parents to make a few notes to bring with them to a review meeting, or give them a questionnaire or checklist to complete; this will enable them to be better prepared and feel more confident. Invite them to bring a friend along if it will help. Be aware of the difficulties some parents and carers face in fitting in with school hours (shift work, child care, transport); be flexible where possible and offer an early or late meeting time. Make arrangements well in advance where possible and send a reminder nearer the date.
  • Use the telephone, a handwritten note or email to keep in touch once an initial meeting has taken place feeding back the positive news as well as concerns.

If you want family members to actively support a pupil at home, be prepared to offer some clear guidance on how to do this. It’s easy to assume that if we say: ‘Share a book every night’ or ‘Help Sam with spellings’ that people know exactly what we mean – but often they don’t. Putting on a workshop to explain and demonstrate approaches to reading, writing, numeracy, behaviour can work well on a number of levels. Knowing that other parents share their concerns can be very comforting so providing opportunities for parents to chat and offer each other moral and practical support can be very worthwhile.

The Parent Partnership Service provides a range of support for parents including a telephone helpline; parent supporters to help with paperwork and support parents at meetings; written information about different kinds of SEN; interpreters and signers; a directory of local support groups; independent mediation between parents, local authority and school. It may be helpful to put parents and carers in touch with their local branch.

Contact a Family (CAF) is the UK-wide charity providing advice, information and support to the parents of all disabled children, no matter what their health condition. The charity also enables parents to get in contact with other families, both on a local and national basis and provides information on a wide range of disabilities and medical conditions.

The website of the Milton Keynes Parent Partnership contains really useful information for parents including a jargon buster and a list of questions to ask school about a child’s support. You could adapt this to suit your own needs in respect of reporting to parents – it’s a good checklist.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2009

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.