According to Feinstein and Symons in their study Attainment in Secondary School, “parenting is much more important than schooling” and “the most powerful parental input is parental interest”. Most schools are aware of this, of course; but actually persuading families to engage can be a tricky proposition, especially after the end of KS2. With this in mind, here are some suggestions that might help get everyone involved, right from the start of Year 7.
1 Analyse needs
Work out what engagement from parents is likely to have the biggest impact on learning at your school.
If a knock-on of new technology – sleep deprivation – is a big problem with your students, or attendance levels are dropping, tackle this before considering workshops on the finer points of punctuation, for example. Ask parents what they would find useful and, as important, what time of day and what methods of communication they favour. Keep parental surveys short and spend more time publicising what you have done as a result of the feedback than you do nagging them to reply! There is nothing guaranteed to alienate a busy parent more quickly than asking for their views and then not explaining why they were or were not acted upon.
2. Capitalise on ‘primary school mode’
Parents often talk about feeling suddenly cut out of life at secondary school. Yes, use new technology to reach them – and especially the smartphones they already have in their pockets – but also make use of all the early opportunities to engage face to face with parents: for example, have key staff on hand at any uniform selling events to encourage attendance at other parents’ meetings and membership of the PA/Parent Forum (see below). Work out who on your staff is good at this kind of thing; don’t forget that many parents are still terrified of deputy heads from their days at school, but will happily chat away about how best to help Jimmy pack his bag in the morning with a non-teaching pastoral assistant.
3. Harness the power of the PTA
Most parents arrive at secondary school with positive experiences of having worked on a PTA, guilt at never having done so, or a phobia of them borne of a particularly grim Christmas Fayre incident in Y2. Secondary schools are, in my view, missing a trick if they inwardly groan at the thought of PTA meetings or, worse, actively discourage them from forming. Quite apart from the obvious financial benefits to a school, properly branded and advertised as such, a well-run PTA can double as a regular parent forum. Have the PTA business first, before the chair gives way to an SLT member to run the forum (having first laid on tea, coffee and biscuits as a minimum).
4. Involve parents in the curriculum
Build in an early expectation that parents should engage with their child’s learning. VLEs or programs such as ‘Show My Homework’ can be powerful, but also consider setting specific homework tasks which actually involve parents. ‘Expectation Evenings’ in September could provide a calendar of such tasks and explain why parents are being involved and how they can help.
Take PSHE as an example. Helping parents to encourage good sleep habits in their child is one aspect of the curriculum that works well as a homework task. Get Year 7 children to discuss guidance on sleep hygiene covered in class with their parents and plan a strategy to improve the quantity or quality of their own sleep. This should be carefully followed up in a Year 7 newsletter, by tutors and at parents’ evening on an individual basis. If your school has the capacity once Year 11 have left, a ‘Back to School’ morning in the summer term, either for Year 6 or Year 7 parents, is a powerful way of demonstrating how subjects are taught in your school and how best they can supplement their child’s learning at home.
5. Put on free information evenings
Once you have identified what sessions to run (e.g. parenting/ online safety/ how to help with maths homework), they need not cost money if you can enlist the support of agencies such as the school’s police liaison officer or run them using in-house expertise. In my experience, free ‘How to Tame your Teenager’ evenings are always well attended, no matter what the demographic of the school – and although you may have to pay for a practitioner to come in, this is often well worth the money spent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellie Thompson was a head of English before spending 11 years as a deputy head in a large secondary school. She now works for a school in Hertfordshire as marketing lead and is part of a team setting up a second school locally.