Anne Clarke, principal of Benton Park Technology College, shares her thoughts on the problems of engaging parents in secondary schools

Recently I was fortunate enough to speak to three groups of NPQH participants about working with stakeholders, of which parents are a very important group. After these talks questions were invited from the floor and the common question from each group was: ‘How do you get parents involved in your school?’ It was quite clear that staff in secondary schools find it very difficult to get parents to take part in the life of the school. I shared with them my thoughts on the subject.

Why should there be a problem?

I think there is a variety of reasons why parents of secondary-aged pupils take a more ‘behind the scenes’ role in the life of a secondary school:

‘It can be that parents have had a bad experience at secondary school themselves so they naturally distance themselves from such institutions. Returning to a secondary school can bring back painful memories and parents can feel intimidated by the whole experience’
  • When children become teenagers they like to be more independent and are not so interested in having their parents visibly involved in their school life. They can talk about things at home, but having their parents on the school site is a ‘no no’. This is very different from primary school where parents or carers often take children to school, talk to other parents in the playground and slip seamlessly into school life.
  • Perhaps there is also the issue that parents want to encourage their children to be independent, to ‘cut the apron strings’ so to speak. It is the ‘rites of passage’ as they move from primary to secondary and then, perhaps, from secondary to university, that at each stage they have to learn to stand on their own two feet.
  • It can also be that parents have had a bad experience at secondary school themselves so they naturally distance themselves from such institutions. Returning to a secondary school can bring back painful memories and parents can feel intimidated by the whole experience.

What have we done at Benton Park to try to overcome these problems and bring parents into the life of the school?

Student support centre

We have developed a Student Support Centre where we can cater for the needs of vulnerable children and provide a safe environment for parents. For the pupils, we hold lunchtime and after school drop-in sessions staffed by the youth service and the school nursing team. They provide general support and advice on any health, emotional and personal issues. We also have mentors from Leeds Faith in Schools who work with students who are experiencing difficulties for a variety of reasons such as bereavement, social problems or general vulnerability. We have close links with a variety of outside agencies to which we can refer young people if we cannot provide the service they require. As for the parents, the centre is outside the main building, although attached to the school. It is not an outpost but an integral part of school life. It appeals to parents who are anxious about coming into school because it has a therapeutic and supportive ambience. Also, it is somewhere parents can visit if they wish to discuss a problem without having to walk through the main school. If schools can provide this sort of area it is an effective way of bringing reluctant parents into them. Parents can also access the centre before and after the main school day when the premises are quiet and this can be an advantage. Having a large secondary school population on the move can be intimidating when you do not know the individuals.

Parent teacher association (PTA)

It seems that primary schools are more successful than many secondaries in running active PTAs. This probably stems from the parental contact at the school gate. Parents who see each other on a daily basis can more easily join together to run a fête or a quiz night, than secondary school parents who do not have that close contact. Having said this, I do know of secondary schools that have thriving PTAs and find this a good way of involving parents in the life of the school. This can be the case in rural areas where, perhaps, the school is the hub of the community and parents naturally gravitate towards events held there. Benton Park has run a PTA for a long time and is grateful to the loyal band of parents who have given of their time to support the school. However, I have to acknowledge that they have found it increasingly difficult to get enough parents into school to make events worthwhile. This is for all the reasons already stated, plus the pull of other events taking place in a busy city suburb. I have no magic answer as to how you reverse this trend.

Evenings designed for parents
We have found, however, that when we have put on evenings for parents to explain the next stage of their children’s school career, then these are very well attended. ‘Options evening’ for Year 9 parents whose children are entering Key Stage 4 or ‘Going into the sixth form’ for parents of Year 11 pupils are very popular.

We also get a very good turn out at parents’ consultation evenings. I feel encouraged by this, because it suggests that parents are still very interested in what their children are studying and want to be a part of the guidance procedure which takes pupils from one stage of their school career to the next. They may not have that close daily contact with the school but their interest is not assuaged and schools can build on this and bring them into school to be a part of curriculum pathways discussions or to receive feedback on their children’s progress. Our school concerts, plays, art exhibitions, and gym and dance events are very well attended. Once again, this shows that if their children are involved, then parents will come into school to see them perform.

Website back-up

We have just redesigned our website and promoted it to parents, so that they can keep up to date with what is happening at school. Parents told us that the pupil post was unreliable. Newsletters rarely left the bottom of students’ bags, so we supplement letters home by putting a copy on the website. We are perhaps not far away from the day when the paper copy will not be necessary at all, when all homes have computers and the website is regularly accessed.

Gauging opinions

It is important to find a way of gauging views of all stakeholders, and parents are very important stakeholders in the school. They have not only entrusted the school with the education of their children, but also their daily care. We have found that investing in the ‘Keele Questionnaire Surveys’ a very useful way of doing this. Keele University has formulated a service to help schools to survey the views of parents on many aspects of school life. Keele designs the questions, marks them and provides the school with the feedback. We do this survey every three years and the university tells us that, although not all parents reply, we have a good return of questionnaires from parents. It is certainly enough to make it valid and worthwhile to do.

We do respond to parental views. For example, it was the parents who felt that communication between school and home could be better, hence the improvements in our website. Ofsted considers such questionnaires to be a good way of courting opinion and I include the collated information from Keele in the self-evaluation form (SEF).

‘We have also found that we can get a positive response from parents if we involve them in their children’s learning’

Parents’ involvement in learning We have also found that we can get a positive response from parents if we involve them in their children’s learning. We have experimented with this in a number of ways. We had two evening sessions led by two members of our science department, when parents were invited in to see how Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment), the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), worked in science. Pupils worked alongside their parents and were shown how the assessment packages for science operated. We have set up an e-learning project for history. Once again we held an evening session to train parents in the use of Moodle. This way parents will have 24/7 access to the VLE and, therefore, direct involvement with the GCSE history syllabus and assessment procedures. The history course is an OCR GCSE history pilot. The syllabus is brand new and is being trialled by 70 schools across the country. Pupils study international history, medieval kings, heritage management and a unit on interpreting the past. It is a wide and varied course which should engage the parents as well as the students. Parents will not take the examination but will follow their children’s progress and hopefully learn with them. The curriculum leader is considering doing a monthly pod-cast, so that parents can hear from him too. Seventy-five pupils are taking the course and have leased a lap-top through the school and the e-learning foundation. This makes it an exciting course, rooted in the new technologies. As a technology college, we feel we should be promoting such inventive approaches to learning. We are piloting the teaching of GCSE astronomy with 20 year 9 gifted and talented students after school. We are also running an evening class in the same course, only this time parents (and maybe even grandparents) will join the pupils and learn along side them. We even have a family taking the course, two children plus mum and dad! Hopefully, parents will take the examination too. The course content and assessment is available on Moodle and that will be useful if a parent (or pupil) has to miss a session. Grants have been sought to help this course to run, including one from the Institute of Physics. There are even opportunities to study the stars, as we are working with the Yorkshire Planetarium at Harewood House. We think this will be a most productive way of including parents in the life of the school and hopefully the pupils will benefit too. If parents know what their children are learning then they will encourage them and we have always found that this triangulation of pupils, parents and school working together is a recipe for success.

We continue to explore ways of engaging parents in the life of a busy secondary school. The attendance at curriculum and parents’ evenings tells me that the interest from parents is there. The skill is in finding a way of tapping into this interest and encouraging parents to be involved in school at a time when pupils are becoming more independent. I think that the new website will serve a useful purpose in informing parents of what is happening in school but this does not bring them into school. The student support centre has provided us with the space to bring in parents who might feel uncomfortable with walking through the main doors. However, I am most excited about the projects that involve parents in their children’s learning. Moodle provides us with endless possibilities, and the courses we are offering in history and science are blazing a trail here.