Getting your parents on board

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Research has shown time and again that parents hold significant power in supporting learning. With the Curriculum for Excellence calling on schools to actively engage parents about their child’s education, Geoff Jones offers some advice.

The 2006 Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act places duties on schools and local authorities to keep parents updated on their child’s progress and make it easier for them to become involved in their learning.

This was only reinforced with the launch of the Curriculum for Excellence in 2011, which calls on schools to actively educate parents about their child’s learning so they can best support it.

According to researchers Feinstein and Symons (1999), parental interest in a child’s education is the single greatest predictor of achievement at age 16. 

Not only this, but parents are often described as children’s first and most enduring educators. When you consider that children spend around 15 per cent of their lives from the ages of five to 16 in school and the remaining 85 per cent with their families and communities, the influence of parents is unavoidable.

Not only is parental engagement a powerful lever for raising attainment, it drives motivation and encourages a positive attitude towards learning. When parents and educators work together to improve learning, the gains in achievement are often significant. The 2006 Scottish Schools Act says quite simply that “when parents and schools work together, children do better”.

Many parents will already have been involved in their children’s education, yet equally, others do not have the knowledge or confidence to support the learning journey. As such, to maximise the potential benefits for all students, it is important that schools reach out and engage with parents in relevant and meaningful ways.

According to Goodhall and Vorhaus (2011), activities factoring as parental engagement may include:

  • Learning at home: help with homework, skills, attitudes, values, or behaviour.

  • In-school activities: volunteering, running extra-curricular activities or attending parents’ evenings.

  • Decision-making: membership of a parent forum or council.

  • Communication: two-way, from school to home and home to school.

Parental engagement and involvement therefore should explore all these areas and more. If this is achieved successfully, parents will be committed to learning about and supporting their child’s educative journey and achievement. 

Parental engagement in Scotland

The Scottish government is particularly supportive of involving parents in education. The 2006 Act helps parents, carers and schools work together as partners in children’s learning by placing duties on schools, local authorities and the government to make it easier for parents to be involved. 

The Act makes it a priority to support the involvement of parents at home, at school and more formally. This should see parents provided with opportunities to contribute to school life and with information as to what their children are learning at school and how this can be supported in the home environment. 

More than just parent councils

Parents are often keen to be involved with their children’s education, and in my experience Scotland has a particularly strong parental representation in education through the parent councils and forums that schools run.

But more than this, schools need to work to encourage their parents to understand and appreciate the role they have to play in their children’s education. 

Effective parental engagement should see schools reaching out and communicating with parents in relevant and meaningful ways – it should never be just a bolt-on. A parental engagement strategy should consider a whole-school approach.

Alongside the traditional parents’ evening and reports which continue to be welcomed, schools can involve parents in many other ways. 

In doing so, it is important to consider the importance of the transfer of knowledge not just from school to home, but from home to school as well, which can provide invaluable feedback to aid the teacher.

Discussion sessions

We all know the feeling of not being confident in our knowledge of something, or having a burning question or opinion to voice, but not knowing when best to do it. For parents, inviting them to discussion sessions allows them to share their ideas and opinions, ask questions and garner advice in a dedicated and welcoming space. 

These could be on any issue, from what people want in a redeveloped playground, to their thoughts on implementing a one-to-one device scheme. 

The key is making parents feel comfortable and therefore they will be more likely to contribute and provide important and useful feedback for the school.

Skills and knowledge

Schools should consider the input that parents can have within the classroom walls; many have valuable skills that can help bring learning to life, placing it in a real and relatable context. 

Perhaps one is an engineer who can share his or her knowledge on building race cars? Another might be an artist who can talk about artistic inspiration and experimentation? 

Running “expert” sessions where they come in to explain how concepts or ideas learnt in school can be placed in a real-life context not only engages children, but makes parents feel involved and appreciated and brings them closer to their children’s education. 

Extra-curricular activities

Many children thrive on extra-curricular activities, gaining and developing the confidence and communication skills needed to succeed in the classroom. Parents can play an important part in helping these run if manpower is lacking; contributing enthusiasm and interest in the activity taking place. 

Families that volunteer are shown to grow more familiar and comfortable with their children’s schools and teachers, and therefore these are ideal routes for those reluctant to participate in more formal school bodies such as parent councils. 

School events

You might have memories of when mum or dad would come on a school trip, or sew the costumes for the school play; these activities can make a big difference to helping parents feel “plugged in” to the event and to the school itself.

Whether this is a regular commitment or an occasional event, it is valuable support for the school as well. Bear in mind that for parents, coming in to school on a regular basis will often require a police background check conducted by Disclosure Scotland, if they have not been previously approved.  

Training sessions

Increasingly, schools are also providing training sessions for parents. These practical sessions could be on skills such as IT or study skills, providing an in-depth look at and understanding of the Curriculum for Excellence, or even tips on how parents can improve communication with their children.

These sessions could help to ensure that both parties are on the same page on key ideas or issues that can help strengthen the partnership between school and home.

Effective communication strategies

If families are going to be involved in a child’s education, they need a good flow of information. In research conducted recently by Parentmail, the majority of parents – more than 70 per cent – expressed a desire for a more regular flow of information, as well as more feedback on students’ good work and achievements that deserve recognition.

The electronic communication systems used in many schools allow email and text to keep parents up-to-date regularly with anytime, anywhere access. However, increasingly systems that can be used directly by the classroom teacher are providing real-time constructive feedback from the classroom. This allows parents to get a true understanding of their child’s progress, and intervene at an early stage if this is required, strengthening the support of the learning process.  

By taking steps to invite parents to feel part of the school experience, and keeping them informed and updated of their child’s progress and development, schools in Scotland are sure to reap the benefits and hit their engagement goals.

  • Geoff Jones is managing director of Parentmail.


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