A long-term, focused relationship with parents can pay dividends, says John Welham.

Camborne Science and Community College is an 11-18 mixed comprehensive school in Cornwall with 1,450 students on role. The area suffers from considerable deprivation with high unemployment and low aspirations. 21% of students are eligible for free school meals, 15 % have special educational needs and 5.4 % have a statement (well above the national average). However, the school has a history of innovative curriculum development.

During 2002-03 the school appointed an advanced skills teacher as community coordinator, who was also head of Year 11. The role of parents was identified as crucial as many were former (often relatively unsuccessful) pupils of the school in the 1960s and 1970s, so it was seen as important to break down barriers between parents and school in order to help students.

Parents of pupils taking D&T were invited to join their children for two introductory sessions and 80% attended. One group (class 5) did not take part in the intervention and this in effect became a control group. Parents were given the outline of the course and a breakdown of the coursework. They were introduced to five staff promises about coursework and five things that students would need to do, before being given a list of five things they could do to help their children complete the coursework successfully. This included:

  • talking to their child about the coursework assignment
  • making time each week to review their progress
  • contacting school if they had any concerns
  • agreeing to support their children’s attendance at out-of-hours sessions.

Parents were then shown an exhibition of selected (successful) samples of the previous year’s coursework and the breakdown of the grades for those pieces of coursework. Parents were next invited to a D&T lesson during school time, which modelled the coursework process. Working in mixed adult/parent/student groups, the aim was that students and parents alike would understand that initial good ideas, followed by careful development, backed up by research, leading to adaptations of the original design would lead to greater success with the final product.

The next phase of the project was a series of after-school sessions twice a week throughout the year, plus two two-day, half-term workshops, during which the D&T area was open and staffed, so that students could go in and work. Parents were kept in touch with the coursework by regular contact by phone/letter, with the underlying principle that contact had to be as positive as possible, always focusing on how well the students were doing and how further improvements might be made. Many parents dropped into the D&T area during the course of the year. Finally, there was a celebration evening, with the final coursework products on display, to which the parents and students were invited.

We were pleased that there was an 11% increase in the number of pupils gaining an A-C GCSE pass. Perhaps more importantly there was close to 100% coursework completion rate and the number of students taking AS rose from four to 20. The control group (class 5) had lower marks and completion rates.

Research by the AST showed that feedback from parents was overwhelmingly positive. Involvement of parents in the half-term holiday coursework sessions (October 2003/February 2004) was significant. At least half of the students used this facility, usually accompanied for some of the time by a parent.

Examples of student comments included:

‘It was great because Dad understood what I had to do and gave me lots of encouragement. He didn’t do the project with me or for me, but just knowing he was interested and ready to talk about it was a great help.’
‘It was good because, in other subjects, Mum didn’t really know what pressure I was under but because she came to school to see what we had to do in DT, it made her more understanding and helpful.’

Parents were also positive about their own learning and their children’s:
‘The launch evening for the coursework made everything much clearer to both my son and myself. It definitely helped him to focus and he knew that I could give him help and support more easily because I understood what he had to do.’

‘It made a great difference to the way she and I felt about the project. I am sure she’s done better in her exams because of it. She has decided to take AS DT next year, which I don’t think she would have done before.’
It is also interesting that the AST has found it more difficult to work with parents on a similar project in the year below (Year 10), because she did not have an established relationship (she was the year head for the Year 11 cohort). This suggests that a long-term, focused relationship with parents bears dividends. It may be that one additional consequence of this project for school is that we need to examine the traditional work and role of year heads, who are, because of their relationship with parents, uniquely placed to carry out this kind of curriculum intervention.

Contact: [email protected]

For further information about the Learning to Learn in Schools project see: www.campaign-for-learning.org.uk

John Welham of Camborne Science and Community College in Cornwall has been working as part of the Learning to Learn in Schools project since 2000. During this time he has worked to focus learning and reflection about learning at the centre of school development. A key element of this has been sharing with parents the learning and skills needed by students to pass their GCSE examinations.