Parental engagement can be easier said than done, but there are a number of simple techniques and approaches that can work when building trust and relationships with parents. Al Kingsley explains
“But I can’t do their homework!” For so many parents, this is the perception of them being involved with their child’s education – and for many of them, understandably, it is an alarming prospect.
After all, it has been many years since they were at school and education has changed significantly since then. No wonder the instinct is to turn and run.
At secondary school level, this is just one of the obstacles that schools need to overcome if they are to get parents involved in their children’s education. Even though parental engagement is not a new concept, getting them on board is still a challenge. But schools must try if their students are to experience the benefits that extensive research has shown it brings (Epstein et al, 2017).
Teachers are well aware of what a difference it can make. For example, in a 2017 survey by PTA UK, 98 per cent of teachers said parent engagement had a positive impact on their school – and they also agreed there were significant improvements in behaviour, as well as reduced absences.
Understanding the parent demographic
There are so many reasons why parents are reluctant to engage at secondary school level. Some who were involved at primary level may believe that it was just a nice thing to do to get their child started with school life and they no longer need to be involved now they have moved schools.
For others, the residual feelings of their own negative experiences of school may intensify as their child moves up to secondary school or the dreaded “doing homework” fears become compounded, so they disengage further – or even completely.
A fear of being judged by teachers or even other parents now plays a bigger part in whether or not they participate – and all this sits alongside the domestic reasons such as long, inflexible or unsociable work hours, caring responsibilities, lack of funds for travel and so on.
In addition, there will always be a persistent segment of parents that is hard to reach and who have decided that education is something that schools are wholly responsible for, without their input. This is a cultural shift that has taken place over the last few years.
Communication is key
Many parents are extremely busy juggling work, family and home lives, leaving them very little time for other things – so schools have their work cut out. But technology can play a part here.
Regular updates to social media or a school blog that parents can read at their convenience without the pressure of having to reply, keeps those who are interested but want to stay at arm’s length informed – even if the school does not exactly know how far this kind of reach extends.
Direct communications home is another area where schools can lay the foundations for good engagement by thinking carefully about what parents need from the communication as well as what the school wants to tell them.
A good tip is to keep the message concise and jargon-free – and using Plain English helps everyone, not least those parents whose first language may not be English.
Dealing with one issue at a time per-message is effective, as is being clear about whether a response is required – and, if it is, making it easy to do so. Time-poor parents will appreciate the clarity; it is so much easier to quickly read a carefully targeted message than wade through a page-long email.
Making the connections
In my experience as a school governor, I have seen that not every idea works for every school; it is all about the parent demographics. That is why the more ideas a school has at its disposal, the better: different people will respond to different approaches.
Outside of termly parents’ evenings, too often, parents are only asked to go into school when there is a problem: i.e. bad behaviour, an accident, their child has been bullied – all negative situations which do not make for a good start in building the foundation for a productive school-parent partnership.
It can sometimes be that making those initial meetings more light-hearted can help create a stress-free and far more comfortable environment for parents which can gradually be built on.
For example, some schools have had success with running small group workshop sessions where teachers, parents and students can all learn something linked to or completely non-curriculum-based together. The shared experience helps to create a rapport, with parents seeing that the teachers can be learners too, which can go a long way to alleviating any feelings of pressure or judgement.
Participating in group activities is so important for mutual support and creating a sense of belonging. With the vast majority of teachers being female, some schools have found success in inviting male family members into school to either take part in a workshop or play sports with their male students; helping them to feel, first, a “team spirit” by being supported by their older brother/father/grandfather etc, and second, to perhaps feel more understood as a result.
There is much to be gained from harnessing parents’ expertise and asking for volunteers to talk about their jobs, hobbies or experiences to a small group of students, a class or year group. This can spark a genuine interest in careers and fields of learning that some students may not previously have been aware of – and having contact time with non-teachers on topics that may not be in the curriculum is always a breath of fresh air for students.
If the name of the game is collaboration and partnership between schools and parents, then why not between schools too? Instead of working in isolation, how about getting together with other local schools that have similar parent demographics to share experiences of what engagement strategies have worked for you?
It could potentially spark new ideas for both parties, halve your efforts by eliminating activities that have been unsuccessful, while at the same time introducing mutual support and partnership working that could possibly extend to other areas of school life.
Reassure and repeat
All schools are different, so experimenting with various approaches, adapting to local contexts and seeing what works with different parents is key – as is remembering that, for many parents, the thought of reconnecting with a secondary school again, years after they left, is extremely overwhelming.
Therefore, the emphasis that it is not all about doing their child’s homework or being judged on their own academic abilities is so important. Instead, reassuring them that it is about being there in a supportive role, encouraging, taking an interest, being proud of their child’s achievements, caring about how they are getting on and offering to help to the best of their abilities, can do much to lift the cloud of pressure that parents may feel.
However, at the end of the day, many parents still do not realise how important their involvement is and so it is a message that schools need to reinforce – and repeat!
- Al Kingsley is chair of Hampton Academies Trust, chair of Peterborough’s Governor Leadership Group, and chair of Cambridgeshire County Council’s Joint SEND Executive Board and Advisory Group. He is also a board member for the Regional Schools Commissioner (East of England) and group managing director of NetSupport.
Further information & resources
A comparison of program development at elementary, middle, and high schools in the National Network of Partnership Schools, Epstein et al, The School Community Journal, 1997.