G&T coordinator Jo Smith explains how to get the most out of working with parents.

Parental communication – the theory

The people management role of G&T coordination is probably one of the most challenging parts of the job. However, if you thought dealing with teachers was hard enough, parental communication can be even more of a minefield.

It can be very tempting for a G&T coordinator to avoid involving parents in school-based decisions about pupils placed on a G&T register. Arguments may be put forward that the school is concentrating on the classroom approach or that publishing a G&T register is not helpful to the school or the pupils’ wellbeing. Recently I attended presentations by Professor Charles Desforges from Exeter University at the Leicestershire Extended Service conference and by Doctor Stephen Tommis the director of NAGC at the National G&T Conference. Both argued very cogently that parental communication could be one of the most effective levers for school improvement.

Desforges argued that there are many factors that shaped outcomes in education. Research has identified 60% of these factors: amongst them socio-economic factors, quality of schools, resources and so on. However, the remaining 40% can be best described as the hopes and aspirations of the pupil, which are generally formed through parent and child interactions.

Certainly parents can be seen as co-educators both in and around school and in the home, but also as students themselves studying that most challenging of courses, parenting: informally through family learning and the steep learning curve of experience, and formally through initiatives like the Campaign for Learning (CfL) and specific parent partnership initiatives.

The government recognises the key role that parental involvement has in raising achievement and has sought to support schools and other groups in promoting home-school liaison. The role of the parent governor has been emphasised, a great account is given to parent’s views in the inspection process, home-school agreements are an ever-increasing part of school life and parents are now given a increasing amount of regular and well presented information about school.

Desforges quoted Sacker et al (2002) to show that  parents and schools affect pupil achievement by different proportions according to the age of the child (see results below). This would appear to indicate that the effect of the parental role decreases over time as pupils gain independence and are increasingly confident at articulating their own needs and opinions. However, Desforges argued that schools do not create achievement for individuals but instead lift the achievement of everybody in the school or, in the worst case hinder the achievement, of the cohort of pupils. What can and does create achievement for individuals is parental involvement.

Considerable research has been conducted on the effect of parents upon pupil achievement and Desforges described conducting a detailed review of educational papers published in English. He identified a collection of about 40 papers that he considered to be examples of best practice. These highlighted four main foci of parent involvement: parenting, communication, volunteering and decision-making. His conclusion was that the most significant impact that parents made was at home through communication and conversation. He stated, ‘it’s what parents do rather than who they are that counts’.

The role of the G&T coordinator

If conversation between the pupil and parent is one of the greatest levers upon school achievement then how can the G&T coordinator support this process? A starting point can be facilitating strong communications between the parent and child, by first communicating well with the parent. Parents can then have a richer, more purposeful dialogue with their children about their learning and educational progress.

Dr Tommis, the director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), shared research from America on factors that affect children’s success in schools. The research indicated that a more critical factor in pupils’ progress than teacher salaries, teacher curriculum participation, the quality of the teacher and pre-school educational experiences, was family background. The research revealed that schools in more affluent districts almost without exception performed at a higher level than those in poorer areas. However, in some less affluent areas where schools had worked with parents, those schools outperformed others. This is in agreement with Desforges’ earlier thoughts.

Changes in parent and school effects on pupils’ achievement according to age of child

Achievement at Age / Parental Effect / School Effect

7 / 0.29 / 0.5

11 / 0.27 / 0.21

16 / 0.14 / 0.51

Source: Sacker et al (2002) ‘Social Inequality in Educational Achievement and Psychological Adjustment throughout Childhood: Magnitude and Mechanisms.’ Social Science and Medicine, 55: 863-880.

Engaging parents

Desforges talked of the ‘impact of parental involvement’. Tommis moves a step further, emphasising that ‘engaged’ parents are key. What does this mean in practice?

  • Engaged parents initiate involvement in their child’s education rather than the school prompting such dialogue.
  • Parents see their role as co-educators of their children and do not see it as being left entirely to the teacher.
  • Parents provide a wide range of educational experiences for their children outside of school rather than purely relying on the school.
  • Parents believe their direct interaction with their child’s education impacts not only on their child but also on the school.
  • Parents work with the school and the pupil to set appropriate targets against which the pupils’ academic success can be measured.
  • Teachers are seen by the parents not as an education provider but as a facilitator to their child’s education.

This of course suggests that for parents to become engaged with their children’s education they need to be able to draw upon a wide range of information. For many parents their sole way of accessing this information is through the school. There will be some proactive parents who will gather information for themselves and through their own efforts will become engaged with the school. However, if we wish to raise achievement across our G&T children, including our G&T underachievers, these pieces of research indicate we must engage all the parents and communicate carefully with them.

It is very easy in school to immediately say we are communicating with parents. To gain a national picture the NAGC conducted research on parents of G&T pupils that was published in Neglected Voices? Engaging Parents in the Education of their Gifted Child (July 2006). Some of the findings are quite surprising:

  • 41% of parents knew their child was on the school G&T register
  • 8% of parents said they had meetings with the school G&T coordinator
  • 55% of G&T coordinators provided IEP but only 6% of parents had seen a copy
  • 12% of parents had been offered enrichment resources outside school.

The case of schools specifically informing parents that their child is on the school G&T register is a contentious one and to fully explore, would take an article in itself. However, schools can potentially manage the many questions that might be raised by parents by informing them that their child has been recognised as ‘able’ within the school.

For parents to fully engage with their child’s schooling, whether they be G&T or not, they need information about what the child is studying and then offered practical and workable strategies for how they can help and become co-educators. They need to know how their child is progressing against national criteria and then be involved in the pupil’s target setting. If a pupil has specific talents it would be helpful if the school signposted opportunities in the local community where these can developed. This can be done for all children through extended schools and not just for G&T children.

In terms of methods of communication, schools should seek to use a variety of tools on a regular basis. Whichever medium is used ideally it should be a two-way interaction so that parents can take the co-educator’s role.

This can include establishing opportunities for parents and school to share information about individual children’s progress, multiple intelligences and learning preferences.

Pushy parent syndrome

Ironically, one of the biggest barriers to parental engagement is the so called ‘pushy parent’ syndrome. Some parents can be reluctant to seek information from the school as they are anxious not to be given this label. G&T coordinators can be concerned that the more information they share, some parents will demand even more from them that is not practical to deliver. The reality, however, is that the proportion of pushy parents is relatively small and it is a role of senior leadership teams to protect all teachers from excessive demands from any group of parents.

The author would like to acknowledge contributions to this article from Paul Ainsworth, deputy headteacher at Belvoir High School.

Further information

NAGC has produced toolkits that schools and parents can use to aid more effective communication. These will fall under the umbrella framework of the Institutional Quality Standards (IQS).