Close working between primary school staff and parents is vital for the identification of children’s learning needs, making an effective home-school partnership essential

Anyone involved in caring for and working with children will know the necessity for maintaining positive relationships with parents; but to what extent should practitioners be responsible for the well-being and education of the parents themselves?

Working closely with parents is a key element of the Every Child Matters document. Yet, while the government’s Every Child Matters initiative strives to support the joining-up of children’s services such as education, health and social care in a bid to increase communication and interaction with parents, is it in danger of placing unrealistic and unachievable demands on practitioners?

The original Every Child Matters green paper (2003) identified the need to focus on supporting families and carers and recognised them as the most critical influence on children’s lives.  Importantly the paper also highlighted the need to ensure that people working with children are valued, rewarded and trained. So has this happened? These key themes have led to the government’s decision to unify children’s services and by 2020 to ‘reform the workforce’. What exactly is the future for schools and are teachers fully aware of the government’s agenda for change?

The ‘150 local change programmes’ gradually being implemented, such as personalised learning, healthy schools and extended schools, aim to ensure that good quality universal support, in the form of information, advice and signposting to other services, is available to all parents. It is important that support can be accessed in places where, and ways in which, parents and carers feel comfortable, such as early years settings, schools, primary healthcare services and through children’s information services, telephone helplines and the web. More specialised targeted support is available at local level to meet the needs of families and communities facing additional difficulties. Types of support offered could include structured parenting groups, couple support, home visiting and employment or training advice. All schools actively seek to engage parents in children and young people’s education, helping parents to understand what they can do at home to work with the school. Children’s centres and extended schools develop a coherent set of services to both support parents and to involve them properly at all stages of a child’s learning and development.

This new, more holistic approach to children’s education and welfare appears, in theory, to make sense. Better communication between all adults and agencies involved with children and easier access to services and support will serve our children well. The difficulties and concerns become apparent when practitioners are expected to embrace the changes whether or not they agree with them, and without any support or training, and when the guidance provided is ambiguous and left open to interpretation by local authority advisers, headteachers and colleagues.

Pushing our relationships with parents to the forefront of our minds is the September 2008 launch of the new Early Years Foundation Stage. Practitioners will be expected to reflect and evaluate on the ways in which they communicate with parents – and, furthermore, how they provide for them. The EYFS Statutory Framework (p10) states:

‘Close working between early years practitioners and parents is vital for the identification of children’s learning needs and to ensure a quick response to any area of particular difficulty. Parents and families are central to a child’s well being and practitioners should support this important relationship by sharing information and offering support to learning in the home.’

Thus we are instructed to communicate information to parents about the curriculum and children’s wellbeing and we are also expected to listen to and value parents’ information about children. This has always been the case – but to what extent has this responsibility significantly increased and just how much can practitioners and parents realistically be expected to work together? To what level should we be responsible for educating parents about the curriculum? Is it now considered sufficient to send home a newsletter detailing the term’s topic content and making simple suggestions as to how parents can support their children at home? Or should we be holding regular evening classes, as stated in the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework, to train parents in the knowledge, skills and concepts behind each subject in the curriculum? [Principles into Practice Card 2.2: Parents can be helped to understand more about learning and teaching through workshops on important areas such as play, outdoor learning or early reading. Some parents may go on to access further education at their own level… Do you provide workshops and other sessions? Do you run family learning courses or other opportunities for parents to access learning and continue to college and elsewhere if appropriate?] So, are early years practitioners now to become recruitment agents for further adult education?

Increasingly, it seems that practitioners are expected to ‘go the extra mile’ – but at what cost? There are many pros and cons to working closely with parents, and perhaps by reflecting on these, and our own current practice, we can achieve the most sensible balance. We must be realistic about what we can offer at this time in terms of finance, expertise, time and space. But how realistic is the government in its aspirations and stipulations?

It is important to remember that ultimately practitioners and parents all have the children’s best interests at heart. Having good relationships early on with parents will create a positive atmosphere which will enable any arising issues to be far easier to tackle. Being friendly comes naturally to most of us and a simple smile and friendly greeting at the beginning and end of the day can start a positive cycle of harmonious relationships. Children soak up atmospheres instinctively and will imitate adults’ behaviour, so we all have a responsibility to be good role models. As practitioners, we should be proud of our learning environments and teaching practice and, therefore, should welcome parents to share in our work. And we can learn a great deal from parents – from information as straightforward as events happening at home that might affect the children’s behaviour, to skills they might be able to bring to children’s learning and development as a visitor to the classroom; ‘Holly’s daddy keeps bees. He’s going to tell us all about

Difficulties may arise when we embark on our positive journey to embrace parents and stumble into problems we may not have foreseen:

  • Parents have many commitments – the parents who cannot attend open sessions, parents meetings and assemblies may result in feeling inadequate and undervalued. But does this mean that we should be made to work longer hours to accommodate them? Some teachers may even feel resentful that parents have not attended sessions provided for them. The children themselves may feel disappointed if their parents do not attend events that schools and early years settings have set up purposefully for parents.
  • Parents can be competitive – inviting parents to know more about their child’s education can result in parents putting extreme pressures on their children and/on the teachers because they struggle to accept their children’s level of progress or success.
  • Parents can be sensitive – having parents continuously in the class seeing displayed work and in assemblies or other situations where they might compare their children to others can distress parents of children in case they may be perceived as less able.
  • Parents can be emotional – closer relationships with parents can be draining on practitioners. Is it really our responsibility to listen to personal stories of home dramas, divorces, weddings, illness, holidays and general chit chat which can be an inevitable consequence of creating good relationships? Too much involvement can bring teachers into the realms of therapists.
  • Parents can play Chinese whispers – it can be risky becoming overly friendly with parents. It is possible that all of your conversations with parents could be repeated and retold as playground gossip before the day is through.
  • Parents are time-consuming – talking with parents before and after school, holding information meetings, planning parent assemblies and open sessions, writing newsletters and information leaflets, reporting to parents and managing home visits are all valuable existing practices. It is already difficult to fit these practices into hectic schedules. How are all the new expectations to be squeezed in – and leave time to teach the children?

And have you ever considered this one…?
Parents might not even want to be overly involved! Many parents hold the opinion that childcare practitioners are highly trained experts and they are happy to let us do our jobs. There can be some resentment towards practitioners trying to influence and interfere with home life beyond a basic, communicative relationship.

Where is the fine line between government interference and government support for parents – and should all this social responsibility be placed on the shoulders of the teaching profession?

‘Co-locating different services, in children’s centres and extended schools, and the development of healthy schools, will mean more professionals working closely together, increasing the likelihood of identifying risk factors earlier and providing easier access to targeted and specialised support for children with additional needs within universal settings such as schools. Schools will benefit from hosting these multi-agency teams. Teachers will be freed up to concentrate on teaching and barriers to learning will be more easily overcome – helping to raise standards.’

In conclusion
With all the will in the world, how could one consider that dawn-to-dusk provision for children, parents’ information evenings, coffee mornings, workshops, special events, family counselling, training for parents in aspects of teaching and learning, efforts to recruit some of those parents to further education, formal liaison with multiple agencies, home visits, schools designed for counselling and multi-agencies – and goodness knows what else described in multiple government papers in the last decade – can possibly equate to ‘teachers will be freed up to concentrate on teaching…’?

The government has stated that: ‘The key to success will be workforce reform, in particular ensuring the availability of sufficient, suitably trained staff, development of the Common Core of Skills and Knowledge for the Children’s Workforce and increased understanding and trust between different professionals.’

Is this the reality? Do teachers and early years practitioners’ describe that they feel sufficiently trained to deal with the breadth of expectation that has already been placed upon them and which increases with every passing term. How well-resourced do schools feel to address the many formal expectations that are being piled upon them to – in effect – sort out society’s problems. If the government asked the teachers themselves what would make them feel ‘freed up to concentrate on teaching…’, would the teachers have produced such socially complex and ambitious plans in an endeavour to raise educational standards?

Recent documents
The list of documents below shows how the government is targetting ‘parenting’ as the source of weaknesses in society and for which they wish to use teachers and early years practitioners as the solution to the problem:

  • Every Parent Matters (March, 2001).
  • DCSF Regional Parenting conferences – Joined-up Support Services for Parents and Families (October, 2007).
  • Parental Involvement in Children’s Education (May, 2008).
  • Every Child Matters: Change for Children Programme (announced December, 2004).
  • Parenting Support: Guidance for Local Authorities in England (October, 2006).
  • Duty to Provide Information, Advice and Assistance: Guidance for Local Authorities (February, 2008).
  • The Childcare Act 2006.
  • The Childcare Act 2006 (Provision of information to parents) (English) Regulations 2007.
  • Children’s Services: The Market for Parental and Family Support (August, 2006).