'Structured conversations' to engage parents

Written by: HTU | Published:

Quality parent/carer engagement has a positive impact on pupil attainment. But it is about more than just ‘getting on’ with them and requires deeper, more meaningful links. Professor Sonia Blandford discusses the potential of 'structured conversations'

Good relationships between schools and parents can make a major contribution to raising children’s attainment.

Parents’ evenings, a quick chat at the school gates at home time, and parents getting involved as school helpers counts for a lot in developing these links, but this sort of relationship-building often won’t work with a sizeable minority of parents and carers, especially those with children who are classified as vulnerable and disadvantaged.

In many cases, these parents will stay away from the school gate because they don’t want the engagement. They may fear and distrust school because of their own experiences with education. They may have challenging home lives and working patterns which prevent them from engaging with the school, even if they want to. 

But it is not just parents of struggling pupils. Parent-school links often fail to meet expectations with a broad cross-section of parents and carers.

According to a recent survey of 850 parents carried out by Achievement for All 3As with Ipsos Mori in May and June this year, five out of 10 said their school only called them when their child had done something wrong, while three out of five said that they would do more to support their youngster if they had more time or guidance on practical ways to help their child’s learning.

Deep and meaningful parent and carer engagement is one of the core ways of helping schools and parents to work closely together to actively support the child.

Part of the work we do through the Achievement for All schools programme helps schools to work more closely with parents through “structured conversations”, allowing them to become full partners in their child’s education. 

The structured conversations approach requires schools to give teachers time away from the classroom for a series of focused, managed conversations between teacher, parent and child. 

The aim is to raise the child’s academic achievement and enhance their chances of success. Teachers learn how to recap a conversation, summarise complex or convoluted points that both sides understand, and set targets that parent, teacher and child sign up to. These are then reviewed at a later meeting. In many cases the cost of cover and of providing crèche facilities can be covered by Pupil Premium funding. 

Through structured conversations, many schools have been able to develop really effective partnerships with parents, get them more involved in their children’s learning, develop effective learning targets and develop more individualised approaches to learning.

The results of this approach have been startling. For example at Tredworth Junior School (see case study) in a deprived part of central Gloucester, 87 per cent of pupils on free school meals have achieved Level 4 plus in English and maths compared to 68 per cent nationally. Persistent absenteeism dropped from 12.6 per cent to just over eight per cent in a year. Structured conversations were at the centre of Tredworth’s work with parents.

We have a wealth of evidence from schools around England that structured conversations work. Parent and carer engagement with teachers and in children’s learning improved by 17 per cent according to our surveys.

In many schools the approach has been so successful that they have rolled it out for all parents, not just parents of disadvantaged and vulnerable children.

The parental engagement expert Professor Charles Desforges summed up the purpose of structured conversations very neatly when he said at our recent annual conference that parental engagement was “not about getting on with parents”. 

He continued: “If that’s all it’s about then it won’t benefit the pupils. Achievement for All has got that dead to rights – they focus on that. It has engineered the parent as a partner focusing on pupil achievement.”

Case study: Tredworth Junior School

Tredworth was the lowest achieving school in Gloucestershire when Andy Darby became headteacher in 2002. His first priority was to improve engagement with the 35 per cent of parents who at the time had little to do with the school.

“For me it was key we improved the parents’ knowledge of what the children were up to at school,” he said. “We needed to empower them to ask questions of the school and challenge us as well.”

By 2009 parental engagement was up to 85 per cent. This was good progress but Tredworth still had a sizeable proportion of “hard-to-reach” parents. 

It was then that Tredworth began using the structured conversations approach as part of the Achievement for All programme as the bedrock of its parental engagement strategy. 

Teachers are regularly given a day away from the classroom for a series of 30-minute in-depth conversations. 

Teachers learn how to recap a conversation, summarise complex or convoluted points that both sides understand, and set targets. Parents can leave their pre-school children in a crèche at the school during the meeting. 

“The basic premise of structured conversations is simple but Achievement for All gave us a structure and a methodology for taking our parental engagement work forward,” Mr Darby explained. “In fact, it has become the model for parental engagement for the entire school.”

Parents of every pupil in the school are invited into the school for a structured conversation with the teacher twice a year. For years 3 to 5 this is increased to three times a year. The parental discussions always involve the child’s class teacher and the teaching assistant. 

Once a year the child is invited into the meeting to discuss how objectives have been met and to set new binding targets for the next academic year.

This level of commitment takes a teacher out of class for at least two days a year but the supply cover cost is covered by Pupil Premium funding attracted by pupils on free school meals.

Parent attendance at Tredworth’s structured conversations is now 97 per cent. Attainment of pupils with SEN and/or disabilities is above average for every year group. For example, 81 per cent of pupils classified as having SEN and/or disabilities achieved key stage 2 Level 4 or above in English and maths in 2012. The national average was 46 per cent.

It is the same story for pupils who qualify for free school meals. The figure was 87 per cent for free school meals pupils – well above the 68 per cent national average. Persistent absenteeism across the school has now dropped – from 12.6 per cent in 2011 to eight per cent in 2012.

Achievement for All

  • The Achievement for All schools programme is currently being used in 1,900 schools across England, the vast majority of them primaries. 

  • It targets children and young people vulnerable to underachievement and/or disadvantaged in their learning. These include children on free school meals, those attracting Pupil Premium funding, looked-after children, those who fall into the lowest 20 per cent of attainment, and those with SEN and disabilities.

  • Achievement for All 3As has launched an online resource called Are We Ready? SEN Reforms to help parents, schools, and other professionals prepare for the September 2014 introduction of the Education Health and Care Plan and SEN Code of Practice. For more information, visit www.afa3as.org.uk/achievement-for-all/are-we-ready


  • Professor Sonia Blandford is founder and chief executive of Achievement for All 3As, the charity that delivers the Achievement for All programme. Visit www.afa3as.org.uk

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