Jane Golightly previously discussed why home-school partnerships are valuable and how to build one with parents. In this issue, she discusses the importance of sustaining and developing these relationships throughout the child’s primary years

So many schools establish partnerships with parents in the early years, only to see them founder as children progress through the school. I have seen schools where relationships at the Foundation Stage are an enabler to learning, and yet by Year 5 parents are regarded as blockers. How can this be allowed to happen?

I want you to think about the good practice that you do in each year group to ensure that a healthy working partnership with parents grows and develops as children move through school. Is it fit for age and stage? What does it look like from one year to the next? Does it also take into account that it’s not only children who develop at each phase, as parents also develop in their understanding, expectations and requirements of the school as their child matures?

Communication in the early stages of education
Good discipline in schools, regular communication and a well-stocked library matter to parents claimed the Observer on 22 March. ‘Regular communication’ is a key component of successful partnership work, and an area in which schools can either invite compliments or leave themselves open to criticism. Schools that get it right build communication step by step, stage by stage, year by year. Schools that get it wrong do so in two main ways: one, they don’t understand their community; two, they adopt a one-size-fits-all approach beyond the Foundation Stage, irrespective of pupil age.

In a child’s earliest schooldays, communication with parents is strong. We know that there are few schools that don’t invest time in working with parents. Schools want to ensure that families become partners in learning from the start. Typical communication includes Foundation Stage staff visiting pre-school providers to meet children in a familiar setting, so that they can get to know them and their families before the children begin to make visits to school. Some staff will do home visits. During June and July, children and their parents get to know the school through short sessions and meetings. Face-to-face communication is strong, with less reliance being placed on the written word. These well-established customs make a real difference to children’s attitudes towards learning and how well parents understand the school’s aims and ethos.

Keeping the emphasis on face-to-face communication
Now let’s jump ahead to Year 4. Perhaps a new child joins your school. They and their parents will also need time to understand the school’s approach. What form will face-to-face communication take then? Perhaps a visit to the classroom and a school tour; hopefully a cup of tea with the headteacher or a senior member of staff, during which school policy will be explained and questions answered. Finally, there should be a follow-up meeting two weeks later to confirm that the child has settled in and to answer any questions that have arisen in the meantime. This is the minimum level of communication parents should expect. Unfortunately, this may not happen. Face-to-face communication, even in something as important as induction, is an area where ‘pass it on’ is variable. It’s not always clear to parents when, how and why communication changes so abruptly and the balance between written and face-to-face communication tips in favour of the former.

Many parents aren’t satisfied with this shift. For them, aspiration and achievement for their child involves both written communication and maintaining an ongoing face-to-face relationship with school which reflects their child’s age and which is more than a 10-minute appointment at parents’ evening. Communicating with parents about learning for young children may involve parents and siblings coming in to class 15 minutes before the end of the day to join in rhymes and songs. Younger children relish this time, but those on the verge of moving to secondary school could take a very dim view of a similar practice. But if we are thinking about ‘passing on’ face-to-face communication, the principle has to be the same. Because an older child may feel embarrassed by mum or dad coming to class, schools need to think about ways of doing this in each year group that are comfortable for the parents and children in their school. If you want to be successful, you need to know your parents and what will bring them in. For some of you this could mean offering curriculum workshops for parents and children 40 minutes before the end of the school day, or in the evening. Others will know that their parents would run a mile rather than participate in a curriculum workshop, but that they may be more than happy to come and play family bingo on a Wednesday afternoon, especially if younger children can be brought along. It is particularly important that schools with high percentages of families with English as an additional language are more reliant on consistent face-to-face communication. They need to make the best use of community workers to support and advocate their work.

Raising aspirations
We have discussed ‘pass it on’ in terms of communication and the need for systems to reflect the community. The same message applies to achieving success with ‘pass it on’ in other aspects of parent partnership. It is imperative that schools go out of their way to be creative in how and what they do to reach parents, especially those who are hard to reach. Is it worth investing time in this work? Yes, according to the DSCF document Going the Extra Mile. ‘Often pupils come to school with a ‘lid’ on their own aspirations,’ it says. ‘Effective schools help their pupils to break free of these limitations so that they can have higher and realistic aspirations for the future.’

Getting it right at each stage can make a real difference to children and families.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education