Green shoots of school improvement – engaging parents

All communities need to trust their school and head teacher. This is hard to achieve when a school has never received a recognised good in any inspection. If we were going to turn this school around, we needed to engage our parents in their child’s education. To begin with this meant establishing trust. Trust is formed from honesty. Our parents had to feel good or bad news, we were going to be honest and open about what was happening in the school. To encourage them as much as possible to engage in the school life, their child’s learning and the school community as whole.

Building trust

Being honest in the first couple of years was exceptionally difficult. Not pussy footing away from discussing supply teachers, a recruitment crisis, the poor quality of a minority of maths and majority of science teaching was never easy. It must have been incredibly hard for our Parents to hear. I think for some, the honesty was disorientating. “ Was it a good thing that this head was admitting to poor quality teaching in Science?”  My message was always, “if we are honest about all the problems, than we have no- where to hide and therefore we have to solve them”. Also how could I be demanding honesty from my students for their errors and mistakes if I was going to hide behind a smoke screen of bluster?

In creating honesty, we could begin to lay the foundations of trust a key ingredient to school improvement. We needed parents to trust us enough to let us know of problems at home, or in school. We had to nurture assurance, that if they shared problems actions would take place. For too long both student and parent had been pushing issues under the carpet and not bringing them to the forefront in school. They had no faith in the system. This lack of trust presented as a despair and disassociation. We needed to hear their issues.

Parental engagement at the outset – the problem and the message

The scale of the problem can be seen in many of the inspections that occurred under my headship. The first being a term into the school where the school was labelled as failing with a notice to improve. This was actually a huge relief for the interim governing body, as the notice to improve recognised the capacity of the leadership to deliver change for the better. We could have been in special measures where the leadership is stripped from the school and the HMI direct the changes needed. After each inspection we offered Parents an opportunity to attend a school meeting with the Governors and leadership team, to hear about how we were going to improve on these judgements for their child.  More than offering, we actively encouraged parents to attend as is their right. At the outset the number of parents that took us up on the offer was below 10 out of a parent body with 1000 students. Heart breaking.

This poor attendance was also reflected in the initial parents evening at the school where attendance hovered at sixth percent in some years. How much was this our timing? Our welcome? Their perception that the school would always fail, or that their voice was considered irrelevant? I don’t know, but this rate of parental engagement would never move the school forward. We had to do something.

My messaging from the outset to my Parents was: “you know your child and we are getting to know your child. We are not outstanding, but we are a learning school. If you think something has gone wrong or you have a concern with how we are proceeding in the school. Come in, ring or email, tell us. Don’t let it go, we will listen and we will do our best to sort it out with you.” It took time for this message to filter into to Parents and also to staff. We had to work hard also to change the method of communication for Parents. Phones were out and emails in! While many staff never returned to the limited number of offices that were available in the school so phone calls would take time to reach them and or get lost. Our response to Parents emailing was rapid as all staff carried their laptops at almost all times. This speed of communication helped to grow parent confidence.

Strategies to break the lack of engagement – getting Parents into school

To improve the school, we needed our Parents to feel part of the school community. To succeed the school couldn’t exist as an aloof institution. It needed to welcome parents with open arms and more importantly empower then to be part of the decision making process in the school’s future.  We set about doing this in several ways:

You said we did: Parents were proactively encouraged to come into the school to work with students and to model and explore learning. We were looking to create an atmosphere that is often found in primaries. We actively sort to source support workers from the local community and parents. We encouraged parents to visit new types of learning classes that were taking place in Building Learning Power and English and Humanities lessons. We ran year group parent meetings half termly with events designed to support the Parent in understanding and helping their child in their next stage of learning. Where issues were raised at these meetings our weekly newsletter published You said, we did in response to concerns. We set up weekly mentor sessions for parents struggling to get their child into school. Created joint workshops with parents and students on safe us of the internet, drugs awareness and resilience to etc. We encouraged Parents to attend lessons where students were struggling and or misbehaving and to support them in their learning. This last example was exceptionally powerful. Students were told that if they didn’t change their ways their parents were willing to attend the school and visit lessons with them to support the change in behaviour. It had immediate impact!

In a small minority of students who found Maths particularly hard and where we recognised that the “ I can’t do maths” attitude came from home and was learnt behaviour. Mums in particular were willing to come to with drawl lessons and support their child and complete the same work as them. In doing so they showed their child that they found the work hard, and that they needed to have resilience which they may not have used in the past to conquer their fears and open up to the learning. Actually as a Parent it is really powerful for your child to see you tackle something you don’t find naturally easy and to learn through sheer grit and determination. Learning with them, making mistakes in front of them is fantastic role modelling for your child. It removes that myth that learning is a gift that some receive and others don’t!

Giving Parents a powerful voice in the future learning at the school.

I believed it was important for our Parents to have a voice in the decision making of the school. But in giving parents a voice I needed to make sure that it would be heard and more than that really considered and acted upon. Student and Parents voice groups can be very enthusiastic at first, but if this voice is merely pandered to and doesn’t have the real power to influence, then the momentum and belief soon disappear from the group and the voice is lost. So what would be appropriate, and meaningful, what part of learning did they take a huge an obvious part in? Homework.

. By its very definition homework is completed at home and requires parent and student interaction in order to support the child in finding the time, location, resources and will power to deliver on a deadline and deliver well. This seemed an ideal opportunity to really involve Parents in shaping the system.

Homework had not been my immediate priority but as we began to improve sections of the school a very small but persistent voice of Parents were vocalising dissatisfaction.  In order to identify the extent of the problem we researched the data, we collected the books of students, the thoughts of the teaching staff and opened up a forum to discuss with parents the issues. Out of the potential seven hundred and fifty (not sixth form, as their independent learning was their responsibility) children whose Parents were invited to discuss homework, this offer was given at a pm, am and mid- day slot. Seventeen parents attended our first meeting. On our Ofsted forms returned at every inspection and our internal parent questionnaire this was reported in as the most problematic of issues within the school.

Prior to the parent meeting, we researched the problem thoroughly. We discovered a disaster area.  What I fear most from any systemic failure in the school was happening with homework, the system had moved into a catch 22 – situation and was undermining itself in all directions. Homework was spiralling out of control. To explain; at the start of the year homework was being set. From the off students were failing in significant proportions to complete the work even in the first week. This was at a rate of over fifty percent of students in each class. The teacher could be faced with a five period day, where over fifteen pupils in each of the five classes taught, failed to complete homework resulting in seventy five students with missing work. Times this missing work by five- for the days of the week- and the chase down became impossible.

The week after when the homework was due, the students who had completed homework, witnessed that significant numbers of students weren’t handing in work with no or very little consequence.  They went and home to their parents to complain and rightly so. “ Why did they have to complete work others didn’t?” They then fought hard not to complete their next set of homework, which put the proactive parents in a battle situation.

The next week, even less and then less were completing the work being set. Eventually the teacher would give up on setting homework or would set tasks that had little worth in the progress of learning as no one could rely on them to be completed. This meant they became meaningless. Marking become pointless. So even if the child was still completing homework in this system and the parents were battling at home for them to continue to do so, there was very little feedback. This is incredibly frustrating to the learner. The whole process was a disaster!

On entering the meeting with my seventeen pro- active parents predominantly from key stage I wanted to ask about what I believed were the seeds of a solution right at the beginning of the scenario; why were fifty percent of children not completing the task from the outset? What was happening? How could we support parents to make sure that all completed it?

Rightly I walked into a lynching mob! However, having grown accustomed to being lynched I had place my SLT in strategic positions in group tables. I had learnt that a lynch mob rarely is able to articulate all their problems and can be dominated by one or two vocal members. If you know as a Head you are about to be massacred for an incredibly awful system, (I was rightly on a number of occasions, and it is probably one of worse experiences when you know there is no defence) front it, as it is the only decent thing left to you and hear the justified rants. However structure and welcome the feedback with support from your SLT to take the first round of discussion and angst in small groups. Then use them to provide a summary of the feedback first, before a more open discussion. This distils the facts and removes some of the heat.

In answer to my questions I was reminded that homework has several assumptions to it. In particular, there are the resources ICT parent support, the room and the time within the day to complete it. From the evidence a number of parents gave me. many households lacked these basics, they did not have reception area space, and bedrooms were shared areas with other siblings. They also lacked the resources, parental understanding and educational support and or ICT. Many had a computer but one for the whole family. The significant number of shift workers and or single parents holding down jobs with significant hours or two jobs also meant that at adult was not around at the times when this work could be completed.

As we discussed further we found the system had been in such decline for a significant amount of time, many students particularly boys were pulling a fast one on their Parents by not filling in their diaries and then telling them they had none. Because the system was in collapse with no chase down they believed it and after a couple of weeks it was true! Also the fight had been really hard for parents and if you were rushing out the door to work and or returning late it was impossible to track.

I was able to share with them our research, we didn’t hide anything shameful, though much of it was. I then presented six examples of different homework strategies I had used in the past and or from case studies of other schools and a homework task for them. Tis was too decide what we all believed should be the purpose of homework because this would define which strategy would benefit us most. I also asked them to ask around as to any other models out there that I had missed. They all loved the primary system unfortunately this was reliant on one teacher teaching the majority of the lessons and this could not operate a secondary system with one student experiencing a number of teachers.

The next meeting ten days later over sixty parents arrived. The word was out, we were living the message I had been giving to Parents. “I am not hiding anything, I really want to work with you and in this case we need your ideas and solutions.” We continued our work but this time focusing on the solution we all wanted. We agreed that homework should be about supporting students to develop the skills to learn away from a teacher and independently and that this work could be to consolidate on previous learning, build on learning and or enrich learning that had taken place in the classroom. At its max when we totalled the number of attendees in the second round of meetings am, pm and lunchtime we achieved one hundred and fifty parents. This was representative of a 1/3rd of the students in the school. Unheard of in the school’s history.

After much discussion the parents decided on a system that focused in key stage 3 on the core subjects of Math, English, Science with the addition of MFL. Homework was published on Monday via email, web, and through hard copy via a student’s tutor group. Parents wanted every media method so they absolutely knew what was set. It was to be returned the next Monday hard copy via a set of postage boxes and marked within a two- week turnaround. Any child who hadn’t completed their homework was text within 24 hours, and rewards were issued to those students that completed homework. No child was allowed to attend reward trips and enrichment unless they were completing homework. We also differentiated this system three ways which was effective in getting meaningful work to students. We ran homework clubs for SEND students and others that felt they needed support, parents could attend.

This was a hugely administrative task and had a huge time burden for support staff. Over time we trained our year nines  with one admin task a year to collate the work that had come in and identify who hadn’t completed the tasks set. This was overseen by an admin. The accuracy of collating seven hundred pieces of work *3 caused us some issues, however the system had improved dramatically. Yet even at its best it still wasn’t good enough. Although we had moved from less than thirty percent regularly completing tasks to sixty- five, we still had just over a one third of our Parents and students still not completing homework. If we had taken the stick approach this would have meant over two hundred detentions per night to collate and manage, we would have been back to square one in the hall.

My final solution to this problem came from a visit to an independent school where I witnessed students staying for two hours after the time my students left to carry on with class work and then going into PREP where their homework was supervised prior to them going to their boarding activities or off home if day borders. The parents of these independent students didn’t have to worry about homework, independent learning took place in school. We moved to this system and the sigh of relief in the parent community was extensive. Now everyone completed homework through an extended day.

Communicate again, and again and again

In the second year of my arrival we introduced a weekly newsletter to Parents outlining what was coming up in the calendar and events that were about to or had taken place, with key messages for year groups and departments. As a parent, I knew that knowing what was going on and keeping up with the calendar of your child’s school was difficult so regular reminders were important. It also gave me an opportunity to communicate our ethos and values within the new school. This is back to the mantra strategy, if you are going to change people values say it once, twice and keep on saying it in every form of communication possible.

On setting this up we initially asked for parents emails and received less than 100, by the time almost all parent communicated via this process and were sent their newsletter. The accountability of this document was really helpful to me. I wanted to give our parents every opportunity to engage with the school and keep abreast of key events and learning. It was also excellent as back when a harassed parent complained the reason for the lateness in payment, latest to pick up at an event, etc. as we would always refer them to the newsletter. If they read it they would have been up to date. I had a similar weekly newsletter for staff that had the same effect on holding staff to account.

Did we get all Parent’s engaging?

No, but we were excellent at getting our hard to reach Parents into the school. Also using the student voice to engage our parents in effective and meaningful discussion on assessment and report writing, diversity, autism and the behaviour policy within the school. Therefore, feedback led to meaningful changes to our policies and working practice.  We never achieved a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) programme for fundraising, but we were able to always fill our Governing body with Parents, and our parent evening numbers increased to closer to national standards. At best I would save for the majority we moved from apathy to increasingly pro-active in our Parent base. Only in our student voice groups and hard to reach parents did we see real passion.

My Learning: A successful child has Parent and School working together. In order to achieve this Parents and School need to trust each other.  In a failing school trust begins with honesty about where you are as a school and what problems you face.

If you are using parent voice use it wisely, and make sure it is a task that parents can have impact on. Don’t ever listen and ignore.



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