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Parental engagement – Bring parents on board by exceeding expectations

Parents standing up speech bubbles, representing school parental engagement

There’s one key to unlocking your students’ academic potential you might not have yet tried, says Ed Carlin – and that’s parental engagement…

Ed Carlin
by Ed Carlin
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As we navigate our way through life, we’re reliant on our five senses. They help us to interpret, process and understand one another and the environment around us.

Our interactions with other people and sensory responses to our surroundings are what will determine whether our lived experiences are positive and inspiring, negative and dull, or anything in between.

So with that in mind, what approach does your school take when it comes to engaging your students’ parents and carers? How do you encourage them to become more active in their child’s development and the wider school community?

Personally, if I see one more survey asking parents to rate their child’s homework provision, the school’s wider activity programme or the parents’ evening experience, I think I might scream.

We know that the teaching profession is filled with highly creative and inspiring individuals. Yet when we turn our attention to parental engagement activities, why do we so often struggle to elicit a sustainable commitment from parents to become involved in all aspects of their child’s development at school?

Parental engagement event

My school recently asked me to run a parental engagement evening using the format of a traditional school open day. The criteria and main objective were as expected. I needed to get parents in and show the school in its best possible light. I also needed to gather some feedback that could be used to potentially shape future developments.

However, I wanted to go beyond what my school expected. Not only did the parental engagement event result in the desired outcome, I can honestly say that it also advanced our longer-term aim of building authentic and transparent relationships between the school, our parents and the local community.

The soft and soothing sound of a piano being played in the school foyer greeted parents. Senior students were quick to offer teas and coffees. They then dropped parents off for their first school tour.

The faculties throughout the school were all buzzing. There was active learning and engaging student achievement stalls as far as the eye could see.

Downstairs, senior leaders were presenting on key school successes and future priorities. They were also gathering views and suggestions from groups of parents in the main assembly hall.

Pastoral support teams were also ready and waiting to hear concerns and discuss action plans. They had the aim of breaking down whatever barriers might be hindering a child’s progress.

The evening concluded with impressive demonstrations by the school’s performing arts and sporting ensembles. Parents went home with pockets full of leaflets and contact details encouraging them to ‘get involved’ in their child’s learning. The difference was that they could now put names to faces.

A place of service

Getting parents involved becomes a lot less complicated once you start asking the right questions. What do they want to know? What do they need to understand? Do they need special support? What can they bring to the table?

Once we start approaching parental engagement from a place of service, we move a crucial step closer to creating a culture where parents are happy to be actively involved. They want to consistently contribute to the school’s forward trajectory.

Parents deserve to feel valued. They need to be prioritised beyond the basic legalities of their child’s welfare and compliance with school procedure, expectations and protocols.

I once worked for a headteacher who advised his staff that when speaking with students, they should imagine a parent stood over their shoulder listening to every word. This has stayed with me for many years as something we can all build upon.

What if we approached every aspect of school life – be it our learning and teaching, faculty meetings, CPD or indeed anything else – by intentionally stopping at precise moments and asking ourselves ‘What would our parents think?’ It would be transformative.

We already know the impact that parent council collaborations can have in the development of our schools. But we need to start seeing every in-school operation and innovation as a platform for parents to have their say. Or at the very least, provide them with opportunities to understand the direction in which the school is headed.

Collaboration culture

Every lesson, conversation and meeting must consider the views of parents and any potential contributions they may be willing to make.

If we can get beyond the simplicity of ensuring that communications remain open, and move towards bringing about a more ambitious culture of collaboration, we will slowly start to see a rise in interest and involvement from parents throughout the community.

Anecdotally, one of the greatest barriers parents have raised with me is their feeling that they have nothing to contribute. Or worse, that staff will laugh at them if they make suggestions regarding school improvements.

If this kind of feedback sounds familiar, it could be that your school has a toxic culture when it comes to parental engagement. We must make every effort to prevent point-scoring and guard against parents feeling patronised.

School leaders will often present to parents over the course of an evening, only to later get on the defensive after someone raises a concern around school performance or behaviour issues. In this scenario, parents return home feeling chastised and berated, making the divide all the greater.

Opening doors to parental engagement

It all comes back to intentionality. School leaders must strategically plan open events that parents can attend. We need to focus on events which will foster a culture of collaboration, belief and belonging.

Don’t assume that parents have no place in conversations around school improvement planning, priority setting, development and other such matters. They do.

All being well, inviting parents to participate in such conversations can open doors to valuable contributions. It can also lead to better partnership working.

We’ve all heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. By failing to place parental support and needs at the heart of everything we do, we ultimately risk hindering the progress and achievements of our young people.

Once a school commits to an authentic desire to build positive relationships with parents and include them at every opportunity – that’s when we start to witness the green shoots of transformational change.

Parents can provide the key to unlocking their child’s full potential. But this only happens if they’re given the encouragement and resources necessary to participate in their child’s learning.

Simply updating the school website with more information, or sending out progress reports will never be enough to truly harness the capacity of so many parents to add value to the work we do.

We should give them a voice in every school priority. Because when a student experiences an effective partnership between their parents and their school, they’ll be more inclined to trust us and take full advantage of the learning provision on offer.

Ed Carlin is a deputy headteacher at a Scottish secondary school. He has worked in education for 15 years and held teaching roles at schools in Northern Ireland and England

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