4 ways to engage parents on their own terms

June 1, 2018
Craig D'Cunha

Craig D'Cunha

Principal, Chantry Academy

One of the biggest differences between primary and secondary schools is the contact with home.

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This blog is part of Ambition:Feed's engaging with parents challenge. Find more tips and discussion on the Ambition:Feed homepage.

Leading a primary school for a term as an interim executive headteacher gave me a new insight into parental engagement.

A secondary headteacher by trade, I was overwhelmed by seeing so many adults in the playground as the primary pupils arrived at school, with teachers meeting and greeting children and daily contact between teachers, support staff and parents. This doesn’t happen frequently at secondary level.

As educators, we are in one of the most trusted jobs in the world. As a school, surely we have a duty to ensure parents know what goes on? I always use the analogy of a car; I ask on induction evenings, "would you lend me your car for the day and not ask me what I am doing with it?"

The overwhelming response is, "Of course not, are you mad?!" But this is what we ask parents to do with their children for 190 days each year and, with that in mind, here are my four tips for engaging parents on their own terms:

1. Keep context in mind

Although many schools struggle to get parents involved, where I work, the fundamental barrier to children’s progress is disadvantage.

For many parents, education was not a positive experience. School was not the catalyst to social mobility, it was not the enjoyable experience that inspired them to learn, and it did not address their immediate challenges.

This can sometimes mean they are not engaged in their child’s education and this is fundamental challenge to overcome, to break that cycle of disadvantage, to engage and equip these parents.

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2. Engage parents on their own terms

Chantry Academy went into ‘special measures’ in December 2014 and, as you would expect, the school lost the trust of the community and its parents. We decided at that point to change the way we communicate and the way we engage with parents and the wider community.

We realised that if we were to engage the hard to reach parents, we would not only have to adjust what we did, but when we did it.

We decided to let parents select their appointment times for parents evening and parents without electronic access to book appointments could call staff to arrange their appointments directly. We would then call parents before parents evening to remind them and again afterwards to ensure that, if an appointment is missed, we can still have a conversation with them.

We decided that we should take education out of the building and to the community - we even tried having an information evening in the local pub, with laptops available.

We have also created a Chantry Learning Zone with online access for parents in the local library. To spread the word wider, we have established a partnership with Realise Futures who provide free community education.

This has seen many parents re-engaging with education in the same setting as their children and, as a result, we have developed a more positive relationship with the community.

3.      Adjust your policies

We adjusted our homework policy so that parents knew what homework had been set, and made sure they were equipped to help their child complete the homework.

Students went home with key knowledge that they had to learn and we supplied parents with the information they needed to test them. We have found that involving parents in learning has really helped pupils to maintain their level of progress.

"As educators, we are in one of the most trusted jobs in the world. "

4.      Create a parent forum

Like many schools we started a parent forum. The forum is not a parent-teacher association (PTA), but a focus group that feeds information into school so it can improve. Parents from all year groups can attend, and there is no limit on numbers.

At the forum meetings, we discuss what isn’t working from a parental view and how this can be addressed. Two major projects came from this group:

  1. Redesigning the school website so information that parents need is easily available
  2.  Producing a parent handbook, which contains the key information, processes and contacts that parents need to ensure they can continue to make a contribution to their child’s education

The difference between the two? The second is a simple guide that sits on the table or can be pinned to fridge for ease of use.

Impact

In June 2016, eighteen months after we started the parental engagement project, we came out of ‘special measures’ and we re-established the trust of parents. Today, 96% of parents on Parent View would now recommend the school, which represents an increase of 66%. Our reputation in the community has improved to such an extent, we now have a waiting list in Year 7.  

Even with a greater emphasis on parental two-way communication, community involvement and parent-led developments, we are still learning and can sometimes still find it difficult to engage all parents.  

So in conclusion, what have I learnt? The strength of the primary model is the relationship and trust of the parents in the school. In primary school, the relationship manifests itself with an informal conversation because parents feel they “can”. In secondary schools, we need to achieve the same goal.

Whatever technology or system you have in place, effective communication and parental engagement will only happen if parents feel they “can”. They must not be held at arm’s length, but embraced by the school, trust the school and feel that the school is working for the benefit of their child. 


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