Family engagement to tackle the challenges of isolated schools

Written by: Susie Whigham | Published:
Image: iStock

The challenges facing coastal schools has become a key focus for the government. Susie Whigham explains how effective parental engagement can help to tackle many of the issues that isolated schools face

For many years public policy, and in particular education policy, has focused on the needs of communities in cities, while the needs of those living in rural and coastal areas have too often been overlooked.

We have seen the impact that sustained and targeted political will has in the vast improvements of London schools in recent years. We now need to ensure that every child, no matter where they grow up, has the same opportunities as those who are fortunate to live in the capital.

The recent Combatting Isolation in Coastal Schools report from the Future Leaders Trust highlighted a number of challenges facing schools in coastal communities. These included educational isolation, difficulties in recruitment, poor quality of teaching and difficulties engaging students and families. In this article, we look at this final point of engagement to see what some of the barriers are.

We have looked at performance data for secondary schools in six Parliamentary constituencies that are located on the coast: Plymouth Moor View, Blackpool North and Cleveleys, Weston-Super-Mare, Scarborough and Whitby, Great Yarmouth, and Portsmouth South.

Using persistent absence as a measure of engagement in learning allows us to make comparisons across schools and areas, with data from the Department for Education indicating that 5.3 per cent of pupils across schools in England were persistently absent in 2013/14.

Almost three quarters (72 per cent) of secondary schools in the coastal constituencies above have a higher rate of persistent absence than the national average. There is some variation across the areas: in Blackpool North and Cleveleys all the secondary schools are above the national average, while Plymouth Moor View was the only constituency where fewer than half of schools had higher than average persistent absence rates. Even here, three of the seven schools were above the average.

This suggests a significant issue with both pupil and parental engagement within coastal communities. As other research has picked up, a culture of low aspiration has become embedded within these communities.

The impact of these barriers to learning are sharply highlighted in the GCSE results of coastal schools. For the schools in the six constituencies, two-thirds (66 per cent) are below the national average of 53 per cent of pupils achieving five A* to C grades including English and maths.

The results generally matched that of absence rates, although there was significantly worse performance in Plymouth Moor View, where six of the seven schools were below the national average. And even where pupils do achieve good results at school, traditional coastal industries have dried up, taking jobs away from the area, meaning these young people have to move away in order to land a good job.

So, what can schools in these communities do to help give their pupils a better chance in life?

The recently published annual State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission highlights the hugely significant role that parents play in the development and education of their children. The report recognises that more needs to be done to provide struggling parents with the skills and knowledge to support the development of their children.

Schools are well placed to provide this support to parents, while also challenging parents to become more engaged in their children’s learning.

The first step in tackling disengagement in education is to understand the root causes behind it. Is there domestic violence at home, is the pupil living in derelict housing, are there any mental health issues or substance misuse problems?

Schools need to build trusting relationships with parents, so that they feel confident in disclosing these issues. Offering to meet outside of the school gates in a more comfortable setting, somewhere in the community or at home, can start to help break down some of these barriers – and it shows that you are there to help, not to judge.

Once this relationship has formed, working with parents and children together to develop action plans, with agreed tasks and outcomes, ensures all are committed to making changes.

A common issue is parents needing support with setting boundaries and putting routines in place at home. This includes the obvious such as making sure children get to bed at a suitable time, that they are up in time to get ready for school in the morning, that time is scheduled to complete homework, and that access to television and the internet are monitored. The less obvious is encouraging parents to actively engage in their children’s learning, including reading at home, asking about the days learning and supporting with homework.

Clearly, with the complexity of many of the issues families face, schools can’t act in isolation. Schools need to work with the other resources in their community, forming close relationships with children’s centres, social care, health services and, where appropriate, the voluntary sector.

Taking the time to meet with staff in other services gives people the knowledge of how and when to make appropriate referrals, increasing their confidence to get in contact when they need to and the likelihood of getting to the right service quickly.

In communities with a culture of low aspirations, strategies to increase that knowledge of opportunities available to pupils are really important. While coastal communities do face particular challenges due to their isolation, there are ways schools can help increase aspirations among their pupils, such as arranging university visits, bringing in external speakers and running extra-curricular sessions like debate clubs. There are some excellent examples of good practice in this area, such as Clacton Coastal Academy (see further information).

It is widely acknowledged that children who grow up in more affluent families benefit from their parents’ connections, knowledge of employment opportunities and their high aspirations for their children. Schools should look at how they can include parents in their aspiration and career sessions, so that parents have more knowledge and confidence to encourage their children and give them advice on important choices on further education and employment options.

This work is both challenging and time-consuming and the impact of interventions will be reduced if the staff responsible for working with families do not receive the appropriate support, including effective training and supervision.

A recent Serious Case Review has highlighted the need for staff engaging with families to receive casework supervision and structured line management. In contrast to other sectors, supervision is not common in many educational settings, but is particularly important for staff working on early help and safeguarding cases, giving them dedicated space to reflect on casework and get another professional’s perspective on their actions.

Implementing successful strategies and interventions to improve engagement is not a straightforward task, taking stock of what your school is already doing is a good way of breaking it down. Here are a few questions to ask yourself and the school:

  1. Do you have a pastoral team or member of staff?
  2. Are pastoral staff getting regular casework supervision and do they have a development plan?
  3. Is the school working towards the local authority Early Help Plan?
  4. Do you have interventions to improve pupils’ and parents’ engagement in learning, and do you have evaluation plans in place to monitor their effectiveness?
  5. Are staff confident in the referral pathways and criteria of local support services?
  • Susie Whigham is head of development and schools at School-Home Support.

Further information


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