Building collaborative partnerships with parents is not rocket science, but it is vital

Parental engagement

Parental engagement expert and author Dr Kathy Weston gives some useful pointers to getting the parents onside

In December 2018, the Education Endowment Foundation produced a report highlighting the most pertinent ways in which schools could meaningfully engage with families to improve pupils’ outcomes. This welcome report highlighted the fact that collaborative engagement with parents is an important yet undervalued lever in boosting children’s learning.

The primary years are critical to setting the family tone when it comes to learning. The extent to which a child enjoys a positive home learning environment (valuing learning, curiosity, talking, reading, play etc) undoubtedly influences academic progress. Equally, the extent to which parents offer children a loving home (where consistency, routine and loving boundaries exist) can greatly influence a child’s ability to thrive socially and emotionally at school.

Parents or carers are the first and most important teachers in a child’s life. So schools must do more to proactively build partnerships with families and strive to create alignment between what happens in school and how the child can be supported at home. When teachers and parents work together meaningfully, children are truly given a chance to flourish. This might sound like a pipe dream in a world where many schools are seriously underfunded and family life is busy and stressful. However, there are a few quick-wins for schools when it comes to fostering learning-focused home-school collaboration.

Parents/ carers are the first and most important teachers in a child’s life, so schools must do more to build partnerships with families.

Transition is a pivotal time to get to know families that are joining your school community. It is important to build rapport with parents and make explicit your values and expectations of the home-school relationship. Show parents that you are approachable, warm, friendly and keen to get to know their child. Ask families for their insight into how their child sees the world, what makes them tick and their particular interests and passions. Transition is also a time to identify concerns and anxieties that pupils and families may have, and to allay them.

Positive phone calls (or voicemails) left on the family phone conveying good news about a child’s progress are normally gratefully received by parents.

The enemy of positive collaboration is poor communication. If parents don’t understand the ‘why’ of tasks set for their children, or struggle to decipher terms teachers use in written reports, it can be frustrating. As a rule of thumb, never give what might be perceived as negative feedback to a parent, without giving them a clear idea of how they can help. Equally, in and around your school, you might be promoting growth mindset approaches (for example), but initiatives such as these can have much more impact when families are on board. With any whole-school project, be transparent with parents about what you are trying to achieve.

Technology is there to help; there are some great parental engagement products on the market, supplying home-school communication platforms and/or giving parents effective ways of engaging with children’s learning. One that I work with, Learning Ladders, even has ‘parent tutorial’ resources that explain to parents how to help at a detailed level. And their resources are translated into a number of languages, to cater for schools’ diverse intakes.

Initiatives such as growth mindset approaches can have much more impact when families are on board

When parents engage with their children’s learning, this can boost academic outcomes by 15-20%, as the EEF report indicated. To make a difference, parents shouldn’t need to attend one-off workshops on phonemes and graphemes (for example). Instead, they need practical ideas in non-teacher language about what they can do to support their child at home. If you are a classroom teacher, you might consider emailing a short video to parents at the beginning of term detailing topics you will be covering and listing ways in which parents and carers could boost a child’s learning. These tips might include:

  • suggested questions to ask children about a topic
  • local places that are free to visit and link to classroom topics
  • relevant books available at the library.

Every family, not just those that are well-resourced, should be able to ‘try and apply’ teachers’ tips; what matters is parents feeling confident about their ability to make a difference. Rather than wait for parents’ evenings or school report season, look at ways in which you can foster ongoing home-school collaboration around learning. Again, tech products, like the Learning Ladders Parent Portal, can be very helpful in achieving this, without adding to teacher workload.

Parents’ evenings and school reports should recognise family efforts to support pupil learning. Good news and feedback (including challenges and difficulties) should be shared throughout the year, so there are no surprises. If we look internationally for inspiration, the current International School of the Year has totally changed the way they run parents’ evenings. Not every school has their resources, but every school can implement the philosophy of collaboration, to benefit all children.

Dr Kathy Weston is a leading expert in parental engagement, and co-author of Engaging Parents (Bloomsbury Press),: She is a member of the advisory board of Learning Ladders Education, a social enterprise on a mission to improve parental engagement.

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