Parental engagement is a difficult nut to crack.
In terms of the school improvement agenda, schools in the ‘sustain and repair’ mode tend to have parental engagement low down their list of priorities as they adopt a ‘throw the kitchen sink’ approach to raising standards and outcomes.
However, this tends to lead to short-term gains that are not embedded within the community. To ensure successful turnaround, parental engagement must be embedded in strategy. And for school leaders facing the challenge of taking their ‘good’ schools to ‘outstanding’, parental engagement becomes the elusive strand to signify something truly special; a fact which in itself points to the difficulties.
Here are my four tips for approaching parental engagement successfully.
1. Don’t assume parents are not engaged
It is clichéd to think that parents are not engaged. Their form of engagement and how they choose to express themselves may differ to your perceptions of engagement, but misunderstanding their needs can be problematic.
In multicultural and diverse schools, identifying different cultural strands that then inform communication is key to ensure that all parents can, in the first place, be included. Communication must accord with the interpretations and values of the parents they are aimed at. Parental engagement with children’s learning is effectively supported when parents receive clear, specific and targeted information from schools.
I have spent a lot of time talking about this issue with parents and the common answer to why some don’t engage in school activities or events is that it is often a ‘bolt on’, communicated late and they don’t connect it to an improvement in the child’s learning. For parents, it always begins with communication and getting this wrong can alienate their parental community.
2. Use clear and respectful communication
Especially with the advent of social media, parents will quickly decry and criticise those schools who do not engage. Instead of leaving the conversation online, face-to-face engagement with the ‘trickiest’ members of the community is crucial as often they often carry weight in their community. If you build good relationships with them, they will shout about the great things going on in your school.
A parental engagement strategy should be outward-facing, taking in not only the views of parents, but the evidence and experience of other schools and services in the community. Equally, the communication and transfer of knowledge and understanding should be part of a two-way process: not only from school to home but from home to school.
3. Training is key
Parental engagement is a part of the job that few teachers are really trained and prepared for. How much time is spent on considering the role and impact of parents in curriculum design or learning? How many teachers begin their career without appropriate strategies to foster positive relationships with parents?
Staff require training in this area, particularly when working with parents whose backgrounds are very different to their own. It can often be daunting for staff who move to an area and are new to the profession to engage in a community that they have had no exposure to previously. School staff should therefore receive parental engagement training through initial teacher training or continuing professional development and leaders must consider how this is built into the induction of staff at all levels.
"Communication should be part of a two-way process: not only from school to home but from home to school"
4. Use the Hub Model
At Woodland Academy trust, we are currently reviewing our Parental Engagement Strategy. We are stepping back to consider the values and vision for how we interact, communicate and refer to all of our parents.
This may sound obvious, but unifying thought and getting colleagues to fully engage with parental engagement as part of ‘the way we do things around here’ is vital to establishing a positive, inclusive and respectful culture where parents are truly valued by staff and vice versa.
We are developing a ‘hub’ approach to parental engagement where we actively put in support and training for parents. There are reams of research that demonstrate that significant outcomes of parental support programmes include: parents’ acknowledging that a problem exists; gaining knowledge and skills to manage children’s behaviour, and the confidence and empathy to use these skills effectively.
Programmes can additionally have an impact on how well children bond with school staff, and how involved they become with the school. Ultimately, prevention is better than cure and especially with the increase in mental health issues among parents, it is vital that we as school leaders ensure that we are increasing and extending provision to parents.
I believe that as school leaders we have a social and moral responsibility to help transform not just the life chances of the children in schools, but in doing so begin to transform the community through engagement, aspiration and inspiration.
Dan is a current participant in the 2017 cohort of our Executive Educators: Building and Leading a Sustainable MAT programme.
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.