Schools can do their best for each child only if families and carers are involved in children’s learning. Jane Golightly considers the reasons why some schools are great at involving families, while others struggle

This week I attended a book award ceremony. What an absolute joy! A hall packed with children, headteachers, teachers and teaching assistants. The children saw themselves as readers and writers and they were beside themselves with excitement at meeting real-life authors and illustrators. As I looked around the auditorium at different children all sharing the same excitement, I thought about the wide range of different schools that all share a common goal – to do their best for the children in their care. But schools can do their best for each child only if families and carers are involved in children’s learning – and some schools are better than others at achieving this.

Knowing your ‘audience’
It’s easy to understand why local and national policy and guidance have always stressed the importance of working with parents and engaging them in what children are doing in school. Each of you reading this probably has a parent partnership policy. But how real is it and how often do you test its effectiveness and impact? Do you review it annually? Or when Ofsted is due and you know a questionnaire will be sent to parents?

There can be no doubt that children make better progress when they are supported in their learning from the home. For a whole range of reasons it may be harder for some families to get involved but it falls on us not to make assumptions and to do all we can to support parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents and so on to be interested in school.

So why do some schools do this so well while others struggle? If I had to sum it up in a few words I would say that the most effective schools ‘know their audience’. This means they understand their community. They know what appeals to their families and they use this knowledge to draw them in to the life of the school. Let me illustrate my point by sharing with you one school’s practice.

A face-to-face approach
In ‘School A’ not all parents have positive experiences or hold good memories of their school days. They can be hostile and suspicious in their dealings with the staff. School A knew it had to change their approach to its work with parents if it wanted to make a significant difference to children’s attainment and achievement. It had tried strategies to engage parents with little success and was determined to find out where it was going wrong. So, it decided to use every possible opportunity to catch parents and talk to them. All staff and governors agreed to talk to parents, older brothers and sisters, carers and grandparents in the playground, at the local shops, in the pub, anywhere and everywhere they could. The families loved it – no forms to be completed or questionnaires to be returned. It turned out that parents did want to come in to school; they just didn’t want to come in without their children. If the school could put on events that would help their children learn and would be fun for the whole family they would be there.

Without delay the school held a bingo evening advertised in the same way – person to person, friendly approach. Tea, cakes, bingo and standing room only on the day. A fabulous maths experience and everyone clamouring for the next event. School A had discovered what worked for its families. The practice has grown and grown and now they advertise, consult, gather views, and share information by word of mouth and personal contact.

Practical ideas
Getting families on board isn’t always easy. For some schools this is their ‘star’ area. For others the policy and practice are broken and need fixing. For all schools today, how they work with families means looking at the work they do with multi-agency teams, services and organisations beyond the school. Just as children need to be in a state of readiness to learn, so many families need advice, guidance and support in different areas which can make a real difference to how they get involved in learning, have better aspirations for their children and understand the importance of children being in school every day.

If you are looking to ‘fix’ your policy or make your ‘star’ area even brighter here are some suggestions for consideration.

  1. Use books –perhaps through libraries and local bookshops – to get families enjoying reading, writing and storytelling.
  2. Reach out to your families through sport, drama, art and music. Local orchestras, art clubs, drama groups etc are a great way to get families into schools to have fun and learn.
  3. You may not have a children’s centre attached to your school but you should have one in your area. Children’s centres are for all families and offer a wide range of services including early health, parenting classes and much more. Access to find out more about children’s centres in your area and what they can offer to your families.
  4. Who is the parent champion in your school and what do they do? Headteacher can’t do everything and through workforce remodelling you may have put a parent champion in place. But, is your parent champion a token gesture or is he/she a member of the leadership team; someone who can break down barriers and communicate with families, especially the most vulnerable? The role of parent champion can be incredibly powerful and make a real difference to children and families.
  5. Schools need to be accessing the multi-agency team that wraps around the family. The relationship your learning mentor has with these teams is critical in ensuring that families and children get the support they need at the right time.

Forging partnerships with parents is worth the time, effort and energy you will invest. It is one of the most important jobs of school leaders. The risk is too high not to have healthy relationships, collaboration and co-construction of school policy. We need high expectations for our relationships with families and as a school leader you need to ensure that everyone places a high value on the difference that good partnership working can make.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

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