What if your only experience of school was awful? What if your memory of teachers was that most of them didn’t care?
I tried to remind myself of these things when I found it
difficult to get parents to attend events.
And I’m not just talking about parents’ evenings. It isn’t a new problem, but having recently moved into a different role I needed a closer eye on these things.
I was aware of our team’s well-intentioned ideas and supported all their activities – information evenings, workshops, charity fund raisers, sporting challenges, mental health awareness groups and parent support network events. They included lots of planning and got plenty of positive press. Yet the attendees remained the same and those families we weren’t seeing had acquired a new label – hard to reach. Great.
1. Understand context
So I started to get thinking and, much more importantly, talking. We needed to understand why parents weren’t engaging and then address the barriers. We had sign-in sheets for parents’ evening so we routinely recorded who came along and we knew who didn’t. Starting there, I took time for conversations.
What I found should come as no surprise. Sometimes when we work in an area that we don’t know well, or when we don’t live in our catchment area, we miss the history of the community around the school.
This school had experienced some difficult times; there had been times where some groups of students had been woefully under-served; there was animosity towards the school from those who remained in the area and who felt they had not been supported to achieve; there were parts of our community who had never felt welcome or valued there.
I am a very strong believer that our background doesn’t predetermine our future, but to miss the context of a situation can be the precursor to dangerously misjudging it. Taking time to understand this played an important role in removing some of the barriers to families and carers getting more involved.
2. Change the narrative
I decided to address things head on. I talked to the staff about the feelings parents were experiencing and the consequences it was having. As a senior leadership team, we looked at communication and asked how we could redress the balance to ensure positive messages were getting home more.
As I welcomed parents and carers onto site, I talked to them about their experiences, sincerely acknowledged them and encouraged them to talk about it. I took every opportunity to speak to them, at parents’ evenings, open evenings, meetings, at the gate, and out and about in catchment.
It was about challenging the preconceptions parents and carers arrived with and changing the narrative.
Many of these hard to reach parents were used to only hearing from us when something was wrong with behaviour or results. We had to change this. A regular press feed of good news, student achievements and information was set up covering social media, the local papers and free pamphlets. There was so much to celebrate and share.
3. Develop a long-term approach
This isn’t a quick fix. It takes time and consistency, thoughtful approaches and tact. The first thing I did was to speak to staff who live in the area around the school so they could tell me more about the history and community.
Then I decided on key things I would keep in mind:
It isn’t about apologising – we can’t change what happened.
It’s not about getting bogged down in the past – it is about the improved situation we have today.
It isn’t about no consequences – we still have expectations and will uphold them.
It is about acknowledging that our schools have a past and often parents were part of that. They come with their experience and it impacts on how they engage with us. Most importantly, it has an impact on how their child feels about school.
However, if we are making positive changes, we are showing that we are committed to securing a better education and improved outcomes for their child. Keep sharing that, focus on the improvements and get the positive message out there.
Katie is a graduate from our 2015 Future Leaders cohort. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.
This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.