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Parental engagement – 4 steps to getting everyone on the same page

Cartoon illustration of parent and child in a school principal's office

Justin Robbins and Karen Dempster set out four steps that could transform your school’s parental engagement for the better within a year

Justin Robbins and Karen Dempster
by Justin Robbins and Karen Dempster
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The effect of parental engagement in a student’s learning over their school career is equivalent to adding two or three years to their education.

That’s a claim made by John Hattie in his 2009 book Visible Learning and borne out by decades of research. Involved parents make a significant positive contribution to children’s personal development and academic success.

Weighed against that, however, is an Education Endowment Foundation review carried across 150 schools, which found that more than 35 different approaches to parental engagement were being pursued. Based on that evidence, it seems many schools are unclear as to what effective parental engagement actually looks like.

We believe there’s an effective way of getting parental engagement working in the short term that will deliver long-term benefits – by having schools focus on the four pillars of ‘knowledge’, ‘environment’, ‘culture’ and ‘communication’.

1. Knowledge

Do parents understand the impact they can have by actively engaging with school? The starting point for any intervention is knowledge, which means understanding why parental engagement is important, what ‘good’ looks like, and when, where and how it happens.

Start by helping parents understand that when they’re actively involved with their child’s education, their child is more likely to enjoy school and achieve better outcomes. Be clear as to your minimum standards and the actions parents must take to ensure those standards are met.

2. Environment

Is your school ‘parent friendly’? By that, we don’t just mean the school building environment but also the range and extent of support offered to parents, which should ideally help families develop good educational habits at home.

Create a safe and inclusive environment at school so that parents can be encouraged to share their experiences with you and the parents of other students. This could take the form of regular surveys, formal focus groups or more informal drop-in coffee sessions based around specific topics.

3. Culture

Is your school culture carefully planned or more typically left to happen? Developing trusted relationships with parents – by, for example, demonstrating transparency and empathy in all parent/school interactions – will contribute to the kind of positive culture that supports better parental engagement.

It’s a two-way process that extends to shows of appreciation for the job parents do too. It means taking time to say ‘Thank you’ to parents on an ongoing basis – not just during parents’ evenings.

4. Communication

An unplanned parental communications strategy will result in people being bombarded with uncoordinated emails, multiple text messages and app notifications, which nobody wants. Instead, start by listening, and asking for parents’ suggestions on how your communications with them can be improved.

Create a calendar of planned communications in a simple spreadsheet and share this across the school team. Avoid sending more than one message to the same people on the same day, and avoid potentially confusing school jargon where possible.

Perhaps your less confident colleagues could benefit from some communication training? Parents could in turn be issued with an ‘after-school communication checklist’ to help them have engaging discussions with their child about the school day and identify any additional support needed.

What next?

You can see how your school is faring with its parental engagement with this simple self-check resource.

If you can address the four pillars with immediate actions, you’ll likely enjoy short-term improvements that include improved attendance, a belief by pupils that school matters, supportive parents and pupils who in turn feel supported.

Justin Robbins and Karen Dempster are co-founders of the communication consultancy Fit2Communicate; further information and templates can be found at

Their new book, The Four Pillars of Parental Engagement: Empowering schools to connect better with parents and pupils is available now (£16.99, Independent Thinking Press)

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