Pat Barnes, education consultant and former head, suggests ways to manage and make the most of parental help in schools

‘So, if you find that when the children start school you could spare a couple of hours a week, do get in touch. We’d really appreciate your help.’ Sound familiar? Have these words ever returned to haunt you?

Having volunteer parents in school is a mixed blessing. They can greatly enhance the learning of a number of children and do several mind numbing tasks that create huge frustration levels in even the least able of support staff – but they can also provoke a fairly minor headache to become a full blown migraine. Kid gloves don’t come into it – the purest silk is the way some issues need handling. Know what I mean?

If you can make the situation work for you, inducting volunteers thoroughly but sensitively, explaining to all current staff their value and need for raised self-esteem, introducing them to mentors and providing them with a handbook which addresses all FAQs, then you have cracked it!

However, sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men just do not come to fruition. Upsets can easily flare up – between parents themselves, between teaching staff and parents, between children and parents – and a mixture of all three. And when TAs and HLTAs come into the equation, a full-scale conflagration might well ensue.

So how can we ensure that a body of valued volunteer parents – or grannies, or carers – can provide a valued, sensible, worthwhile system of support which is appreciated by all for its commitment, organisation and crucial links with the community at large?

Positive outcomes

It may be worth considering the part parents play in the education of their children. Why do we want them to be involved? How do children benefit? Well, as we usually say to the nervous, curious parents of Rising 5 as they embark on this minefield of a school career, ‘you are the child’s first and most enduring teacher. Those skills and interests that you pursue are likely to be those which first interest your child. If you are an avid reader, your child is likely to see the value of books, too. If you can recognise a bird from its song or shape, your child will probably join the Young Ornithologists Society. And if you watch TV…’ ad infinitum!

Dear old Maslow and his triangle are pertinent here, too. You remember that usually parents are responsible for sending children to school ready to learn, clean, alert, fed and so on. Just maybe we in school can emphasise this message to some parents who are not aware of their crucial parenting role. So one productive outcome of having parent volunteers may just be improved parenting.

We must never underestimate the inadvertent role modelling that happens in school. Parents see and judge us – and all adults – on the way we interact with their children. They note the language and vocabulary we use. They hear and react to our tone of voice as we speak with one or many children. They note the recognition, celebrations and sanctions we deploy. And, if they think it’s OK, they also perceive the children’s reactions to us – they will copy the way we talk and treat their precious offspring the same way at home.

What a huge responsibility! But isn’t this emphasised in Every Child Matters? We are reminded most vociferously that ‘Parents, carers and families – promote healthy choices, provide safe homes and stability, support learning, promote positive behaviour and are supported to be economically active’. Thus, I would argue, it is incumbent on us to offer parents and carers the opportunity to help in school, where, at the same time, they can witness good practice in the areas of respect, understanding, communication and tolerance.

Some practical tips:

  • A senior teacher may be interested in coordinating the induction and work of parents in school. If so, time must be budgeted for preparation and delivery.
  • An informal but structured approach is generally appreciated. Ensure there is a consistent way of children and staff using parents’ names: Mrs (Smith) is a preferred title to a first name.
  • Ensure there is somewhere for volunteers to meet. Are they welcome in the staff room? Does that place too great a burden on other staff, both teaching and support? Do they pay – and how – for tea, coffee and refreshments? Do they join in with staff celebrations?
  • Emphasise strongly the crucial area of confidentiality. The activities in school can be broadcast from the roof and shouted over the ocean – but a child’s name must never be mentioned out of school.
  • Be aware that parents are schools’ best ambassadors. Get the relationship right and support will zoom in from every community nook and cranny. Get it wrong and you stand alone – doomed!
  • Recognise publicly parents’ unique contributions to school development – in a ‘thank you’ assembly, for instance, or the newsletter. You will be repaid tenfold.
  • Once parents are becoming established in their role it is useful to informally wander and observe them – and review their progress with them and the teacher line manager. And ask them if they are enjoying their work!
  • There may be productive links with PTFA – but tread carefully with this one. There are lots of toes to bruise!
  • Do establish with each parent how they would prefer to work – with children, alone, in a group, in class and so on. Would they prefer to do the library admin, cover books, make costumes, help children to cook, make a picture or walk groups to swimming lessons (with Qualified Teacher Status)…
  • Ensure that, for each session they give, they have clearly identified outcomes or expectations.
  • Hold a termly meeting for them all together and give them an opportunity to articulate their perceptions of school. Remember it will be a very different experience from when they were pupils!
  • Establish with the local authority the necessity or otherwise for a police check.

The days of parents staying on the road side of the school gate are long gone – we must welcome them into school and value their contribution to the whole of school life.