Roger Smith considers the important role that parents play in supporting their children and asks what more schools can do to support them

I am sure we all recognise that parents, carers and families are probably the most important influences on children’s lives and that parents who are able to play a supportive role in their children’s learning can make a huge difference to their achievement, behaviour and attitudes. When home and school work together, children do well, and the more relevant the information that we provide and the more support we give parents and carers the better.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: If you would like further ideas on how raise achievement by encouraging parents to be involved in their children’s education, see the Engaging Parents Toolkit

What should we be getting right?
If we are trying to improve how parents can be involved in school and how we attract them as partners in their children’s education, let’s simplify the issue by suggesting what our schools might look like if we were getting most things right:

  • The school will be obviously welcoming, with space for parents (such as a relaxing parents’ room with posters and other information, as well as refreshments).
  • Parents need access to the adults who work with their children. There need to be opportunities to meet them at various times in the school day as well as during specific parents’ evenings to discuss progress.
  • Parents should be able to be involved with the school by helping in the classroom, on outside visits or as members of a parents’ association.
  • The school development plan needs to recognise the importance of parental involvement and set itself targets to make improvements or, perhaps more importantly, have a course of action that will involve all parents, rather than the significant few who are easy to include in any parent/school partnership.
  • Parents like to feel as relaxed as possible when they are in the school building and in their relationships with teachers. Shared social events help build these kinds of relationships.
  • Some parents have difficulties in making positive relationships with the school. Teachers should attempt to involve all parents and try never to turn a parent away if they volunteer to help.
  • Some parents find it easier if there are activities that involve their children, such as outings, picnics and even curriculum evenings on maths and literacy where children have to bring their parents with them.

What do you think?
This is far from a definitive list and there will be many other equally interesting and useful examples, but achieving good practice often means that we have to be able to ask ourselves the right questions. Here are a few points that are well worth considering:

  • Have you asked parents what they expect from the school?
  • What exactly do you expect from parents?
  • Do you know and have you asked what parents think of the school?
  • How do you actually involve parents at the moment? Make a list by asking as many of your teachers and teaching assistants as possible.
  • Why do you think that some parents don’t get involved?
  • What do you do already to support parents in helping their child?
  • Are the school’s ‘welcoming’ signs written in languages the parents can understand?
  • Do you have ways of making sure that written and telephone enquiries from parents are dealt with promptly?
  • Do you contact parents about their children for positive as well as negative reasons?
  • How much information about what is being taught do you share with parents?

The larger process
The General Teaching Council (GTC) is concerned about the amount and the quality of the support that parents need to help their children effectively. One of their press releases suggests, ‘Many parents think it is important to be involved in their child’s learning but don’t think they have the range of knowledge and skills needed to engage fully with their child’s education’. This is from a GTC study ‘Engaging Parents in their Children’s Learning’.

Like all of us, parents live busy lives and it is often as difficult for them to find time to support their children as it is for us to offer them extra advice and skills. Those parents I know with primary age children are more than happy to be involved in helping with homework and attending formal parent/teacher consultations, but feel that there are significant barriers that prevent them from being more fully involved. ‘I always seem short of time and don’t want to be learning how to support her and at the same time not being able to find time to do all the fun things that we both like.’ Or, ‘He likes me to go to meetings where everyone is there but gets embarrassed and negative if I get too involved. I think there is a tightrope I have to balance on. How can I support him without being too intrusive?’

I think that schools also have ‘a tightrope to balance on’. The two parents’ statements are obviously from parents who know how to be supportive but want to do more. We all know that we have lots of parents who either would like to be supportive and do want to know what to do or who have never been supportive but perhaps might be – if they knew how to be. We are caught in a difficult situation. Too much advice may well put many parents off and too little would be equally unproductive.

Attracting parents into school
I have always been in favour of using the skills of as many parents as possible. If parents work alongside teachers they will learn many useful skills that will help them support their own children effectively, eg how teachers actually teach, how they relate to children, how they praise and reward, how they operate sanctions, what kind of social and practical skills are useful, and so on.

But if we are going to welcome parents into school and into classrooms we have to recognise that they actually need to become involved. Every teacher knows how useful parents can be helping out with practical lessons such as preparing food, the demonstrating the useful aspects of design technology, being responsible for a few children on outside visits and even using their expertise as part of the extended school day for such things as music, dance, gymnastics and of course by being supportive to you and the school they will also be learning how to be supportive at home.

But how do you find out what parents actually want or are prepared to do? Here are some examples of the kinds of questions that could be asked on a simple but effective parental involvement request form shown below.

Tick where you could offer help:

  • art and design
  • cooking
  • fundraising projects
  • gardening
  • school productions (lighting, costumes, make-up)
  • reading
  • ICT
  • sports activities (please specify)
  • use this space to tell us about any other special skills you could offer
  • use this space to say what days you could come into school and for how long.

Wider support
The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has just started a ‘Parent Know How Programme’ that has £44m funding and runs from now until the 2010/11 financial year. It recognises that there are some parents who need help more than others and who will struggle to access the kinds of information that might help them. If parents who offer little support do not access any of the government’s websites and documents, we will need to creatively use government material to attract parents and work with them on understanding how to provide support for their own children. After all, we are in a position to know what our parents need and how best we can provide all kinds of useful information.

What kind of support might be needed?
Well, let’s make it clear right from the start; parents want to know useful ways of helping their children and will ask seriously practical questions, some of which might not have straightforward answers. What they don’t want or need are theories on child-rearing or the latest research about resolving issues of behaviour. That is our job. We take on board the theory and translate it into the practicalities of day-to-day ‘doing’.

A headteacher colleague actually did what we all should do and simply asked parents what issues they felt they needed information and support about. Their five major concerns were bullying, school meals, attendance, internet safety, and behaviour and discipline. She held a meeting with interested parents, which was well attended, and asked them what specific support they felt they needed about each of their five main concerns. The meeting was designed to identify the needs of parents, and to find experts to talk to parents and help them with their own specific agendas. If the parents actually ‘owned’ the support they felt they needed, the assumption was that any meetings would be reasonably well attended and possibly reach parents who actually both wanted and needed the information that was on offer. Each of these five issues was discussed and developed further with a view to incorporating the results into the school’s daily practice:

  • school meals – what is a ‘good’ diet, what shouldn’t my child be eating, how can I encourage them to eat what is good for them?
  • attendance – tips for getting my child to school if they are reluctant, why can’t I go on holiday in term time, what are my responsibilities and what are the school’s and what is an unauthorised absence?
  • internet safety – how to protect the computer, information about online safety, should we be in the same room as our child and the computer?
  • bullying – how to recognise bullying, how to help the victim, how to help the school, appropriate punishments for the bully, what to do if my child is bullying.
  • behaviour and discipline – what is the school’s behaviour policy, what happens to misbehaving children, how can I support the school and what should I do if my child is badly behaved?

Keeping up the momentum
As you can see, the questions are both simple and complex and, as the five areas are probably fairly similar and common to most schools, they might be the kind of areas of support we can begin with. There are any number of ways to get the information out and the parents involved. Meetings and practical workshops can be organised, question and answer sessions might be useful. Visiting speakers, newsletters and information sheets will be helpful as well as reminders of other areas that might provide useful information.

Supporting parents successfully is about knowing what we want as well as asking them what they want. We need to make sure that the ethos of our school is one where parents are listened to and where we (within reason) respond to their views. The Parents Centre Forum is an ideal place to access good ideas, clear advice and information from parents and carers who have experienced or are experiencing similar issues and it will help you identify areas where support is essential. There is a wide range of issues and (as with all parents’ forums) a great deal of unsupported moaning that can be a little depressing. But at the very least it identifies the kind of effective support that parents might need as well as suggesting many areas where treading carefully might be a good idea.

Once you know what parents want, it is also possible to find wider information that will help with offering as much practical advice as possible.

Roger Smith is a former primary headteacher