Every August exam results are in the media spotlight; but what we focused on better parenting and better teaching instead? Bill Lucas explores parental involvement

Parental involvement in schools is a tricky issue. Schools have never really worked out whether they are damned if they do involve parents, or damned if they don’t. Recent research into Sure Start (a government initiative predicated on better engagement with parents) seems to suggest that it has made little measurable difference to the achievement of children. Yet when children misbehave, we are all too happy to blame parents. Teachers mutter about home circumstances and family background, while society has sanctions like ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) to reinforce its belief that parents are responsible for their unruly children.

Who is right? How should home and school relate in the twenty-first century? What goes through the minds of parents and teachers each autumn as hundreds of thousands of home-school agreements are signed and then, for the most part, forgotten? How many teachers really want parents to be actively involved in their children’s education? And how many parents, for that matter, want to and are able to help in some real way? What if every year in August, instead of the media carping about improved exam results, they chose to highlight better parenting and better teaching?

In this article I will explore some of the issues associated with the thorny area of home and school, parents and teachers.

Family learning

Family learning is a comparatively recent phrase, but the idea of it – everything you learn at or from home – is as old as the hills. Families are our first and most important teachers. They also teach us about many of the most important things in life. The values,attitudes and culture that we learn from our families can stay with us throughout our lives.

We acquire knowledge from school, but that knowledge is given a context by the family. For example, children learn to read at school, but it is often the family that nurtures a love of reading. History can seem remote in textbooks but a grandparent’s stories of World War II can bring it to life. Family learning covers all forms of learning in and around the home and for most people, it is largely informal.

Without family support, a child’s formal education can be an uphill struggle. There is good evidence that family learning can overcome many of the difficulties associated with a disadvantaged background, for both parents and children.

Being a parent

Bringing up children has always been a daunting challenge. Today it is particularly the case, with relentless pressure from television, the web, the music and fashion industries and the media in general. There are many things a parent can do to help their child to do well in life and at school. The three most important of these seem to me to be:

  • showing in everything that they do, that they really care about learning;
  • creating a learning environment that is stimulating;
  • actively supporting their children to become better learners.

Some parents take to these roles easily. They are life’s confident self-improvers and are only too happy to share their curiosity about the world with their children. Many are interested in learning but quite unsure about what they can practically do to help either at home or with their child’s school. A significant minority are themselves turned off from learning and possibly still recovering from their own unhappy experiences of school.

What can all of these parents do to support their child’s development as a learner? How can schools make it easy for them to do this?

Being a teacher

Being a teacher has never been more challenging than it is today. There are enormous pressures to achieve better and better examination results.Tests inevitably loom very high on the agenda, to such a degree that parents can seem to be a distraction, or worse still, an intrusion on the sacred goal of “covering the curriculum in time”.

Teachers dream of finding parent volunteers who will magically appear in time to swell adult numbers on school trips and, occasionally, help out at school functions. But when it comes to finding a real and realistic role for parents in the classroom, most schools struggle. There are also very real practical constraints, such as the need to organise criminal record checks on parent helpers.

So what can schools do which goes beyond the symbolism of declaring parents to be partners? How can schools reach out into homes, especially those homes where learning is a low priority? What can schools do to ensure that parents do not only visit when something is going wrong for their children or at ceremonial gatherings like parents’ evenings? (For some schools and some parents, just getting any kind of mutual engagement may be the issue.)

What is needed is a fresh look at the way the curriculum is described, new thinking on areas of common concern and much more imaginative communication.

A curriculum of mutual relevance

The currency of school is subjects – maths, English, science, geography etc. But the currency of life is the unpredictable ebb and flow of interests and needs. The school approach is essentially one of ‘just in case’. (The capital of France is Paris. Certain ways of answering comprehension questions are acceptable. Some mathematical concepts are important enough to be committed to memory.) The other approach is much more ‘just in time’. (A child starts to get interested in music and the parent needs to find out how they can encourage this. The family goes on holiday to Finland and consequently wants to discover more about the country.)

Quite often the distinction is between know-what (the facts you need at school) and know-how (the ways of doing things that you need for family life). The school curriculum is set out in an Act of Parliament, while the curriculum of lifelong learning is left to consenting adults to devise (along with young people.) Suffice it to say, that this curriculum is life-long and life-wide, much more about developing certain learning habits or attitudes, than about specific areas of knowledge.

Whether or not schools have espoused an approach to teaching and learning, they still have a duty to interpret the subject headings which appear on the timetables of their children and which are looked at by parents, if they choose to look inside homework diaries or the like.This might involve the following kinds of activities:

  • regularly offering parents the chance to experience taster lessons and see at first-hand what is involved;
  • sending all parents a termly summary of what is going to be taught in each subject area, with specific suggestions of things that parents can do to support their children (all written in straight forward language rather than in curriculum speak, of course!);
  • identifying parent champions in different subjects (e.g. the builder who is brilliant at technology, the healthcare assistant who knows lots about diet) and finding ways of using such people to talk to pupils and other parents;
  • encouraging parents with favourite subjects to support specific classroom sessions and possibly run after-school clubs.

Areas of common concern

Making what they teach more accessible is a valuable first step for schools. But it is only a small step in the right direction. Developing a mutual agenda of common concerns is another area that they may wish to consider. Alistair Smith and I have written extensively about this in Help Your Child to Succeed and the Help Your Child to Succeed Toolkit.

Here are some of the headings for joint work that might emerge as part of this process.The first is covered in some detail and the others are just summaries:

How to coach children. As relevant for parents as it is for teachers, we advocate a model using the acronym RESPECT.

Reassuring: “I know you thought this would be a good way of doing this and…”

Enthusiastic: “I really liked the way you…”

Steady: “That’s okay. I’ll wait while you pick them up again.”

Practical: “Let’s see what happens when you / we try this again. You stand over there and I’ll…”

Engaging: “I’ll do it first and then you try.”

Clear: “When you move your hand more slowly, you will stop smudging your writing.”

Truthful: “You’re not as good at kicking with your left foot as your right, so we should practise…”

How to make time for learning. This can cover everything from doing homework to organising a weekly family diary. It may involve breakfast clubs, peer support groups, mentoring by older children and after-school sessions.

How to set goals.This is an essential skill for adults and children alike.

Overcoming barriers to learning. This can include understanding stress, dealing with undesirable friends, motivation and persistence.

Creating a learning home. Teachers need to create dynamic interesting learning environments, but so do parents! Many teachers are also parents! There is huge opportunity for sharing good ideas and good resources here, for example, building up a stock of games that also promote better learning. Classrooms on the doorstep. Libraries, museums, farms, historic houses, town centres, colleges – all are examples of places which both teachers and parents may want to draw inspiration from. Why does every school in the land not have an annotated map of these (such as all those within a five-mile radius of the school), to give each parent, with specific connections to what is going to be taught?

Developing a positive mind-set. There is mounting evidence of the importance of this attribute in children and adults. It is the corner-stone on which resilience is founded.

Using your social networks. The more children are exposed to different, exciting and new ways of thinking and being, the better. Parents and teachers can both benefit from more systematic use of their social networks.

And I have not even mentioned many of the obvious areas such as reading together, watching educational TV together, using the web together and so on!

Communication mind-set

In many ways it comes down to mind-set. I know schools, for example, who see parents as partners in teaching. Consequently, everything the school does reflects this. Every day is an Open Evening; parents are welcome, with no more than a few day’s warning, to come and experience things for themselves.

Many parents in schools like these become teaching and learning assistants, performing a range of valuable services for the school and its pupils. They are involved in planning and sometimes helping with delivering learning experiences for children. While the teacher retains control and appropriate professional over-sight, the lessons are that much the richer for the input from other adults.

But it is also a two-way street. In such schools, teachers tend to run after-school or evening ses-sions to help parents work with teachers in a relaxed, fun way, to find out the ways in which they can support each other. These offer the chance to explore areas of mutual interest in a structured way and to help each other in solving difficult issues. The parent type cards opposite are just one example of an activity designed to promote awareness of the many different roles parents can change and the choices they have along the way.

In schools that really see parents as allies, results go up, attitudes improve and they become more popular. In a recent survey by the Department for Educations and Skills, 75% of parents said that they wanted more involvement in their child’s school and 35% did not even recognise the term “Home-school agreement” or remember signing one.

Now’s the time for all schools to change their mind-set towards parents and invite them to find new and more meaningful roles where wanted or, if wanted, to discover ways of becoming more confident as parents. This inclusive approach to engaging parents is relevant for both primary schools (where it is comparatively easy) and for secondaries (where it is much harder). TEX

References

  1. Bill Lucas, Discover Your Hidden Talents; the essential guide to lifelong learning, NetworkEducational Press, 2005
  2. Guy Claxton, Building Learning Power, TLO, 2002
  3. Bill Lucas and Alistair Smith, Help Your Child to Succeed, Network Educational Press, 2002
  4. Bill Lucas and Alistair Smith, Help Your Child to Succeed Toolkit, Network Educational Press, 2003

Bill Lucas is a best-selling author and motivational speaker who works with organisations in all sectors. He is also Chairman of the Talent Foundation. A growing number of schools and local authorities are adopting his ideas.

First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 10 Winter 2005

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