Working with your parents

Written by: HTU | Published:

Nick Bannister reviews some recent research and talks to primary leaders about how schools can take their parental engagement to the next level

Real parental involvement seems an obvious key ingredient in the success of any school.

Engaging with parents can no longer be an arm’s length, superficial relationship based on parents’ evenings and occasional information sharing. Today there needs to be a deeper relationship in which school and parent understand that they are partners working towards the same objectives.

“There’s a strong sense from schools that the child’s best interests are served by the school working collaboratively and in partnership with parents,” according to Leadership for Parental Engagement, a report from the National College for School Leadership.

The publication features research from schools, children’s centres and clusters around the country and attempts to capture the key characteristics of leadership approaches that led to successful parental engagement.

Leaders should model behaviours that create effective relationships, such as listening to and talking with rather than to parents, supporting and encouraging staff to work effectively with parents, and monitoring the impact of the work, the report states.

Distributed leadership – enabling others to develop leadership skills – also makes a real difference. Parent support workers who work with skill and authority make a significant difference to the lives of individual children and families on a daily basis.

The report continues: “Creating opportunities for them to grow and develop in the role is something that needs careful planning and consideration of CPD, including supervision, which for some is a key means of support but for others is as yet embryonic.”

Vision matters too. A belief that parents and children matter creates a powerful motive for gaining the commitment of staff, parents and the community. The report adds: “Communication is key, and ensuring the vision is embedded throughout the culture of the school, children’s centre or cluster is critical for sustainability.

“However, this takes time and parental engagement work often starts with the individual parents and families who are struggling most. Here, although the work focuses on helping them to support their child’s learning, it may begin by addressing the specific needs of the parents themselves. It is here where some important quick wins can occur.”

The contrast between Anne Johnson’s first days as head at Dormanstown Primary School in Redcar and today are stark. “This school used to be quite a tense place with some quite significant behaviour problems,” she told Headteacher Update. “But things are so different today. There’s a sense of ease about the place.”

Closer working relationships with parents have been a key driver of that transformation, she believes. The school’s involvement in the Achievement for All programme, a national initiative which helps schools raise the attainment of children with SEND, has played no small part. The programme, which is now being used in 1,000 schools around the country, considers parents as crucial partners with the school in their child’s learning and development.

Ms Johnson continued: “We wanted parents to be able to support children and praise them for the things that we are doing with them. But parents were understandably struggling to understand what we were trying to communicate to them.”

An Achievement for All approach called Structured Conversations is one way that the school has improved its relations with parents. Parents are invited into the school for an in-depth, unhurried conversation about their child. Teachers are given time away from their teaching schedule to welcome parents and the emphasis is on the school listening and then agreeing targets for the child that school and parent will work together to fulfil.

“We want the parents to do all the talking,” Ms Johnson said. “It’s not about the teachers dominating the conversation. We want to know what they think and how they feel. The teacher listens and the conversation is written up in plain English. It’s very focused and contains actions for us rather than the parent.

“It’s important that there’s a proper amount of time for these conversations. We give them a cup of coffee, maybe a bite to eat. We want to make them feel that they are welcome and that they are part of a real partnership.

“We have got to work very much on how to help parents praise their children. Some parents do not know how to celebrate success with their children. Some parents are fab at it. I will sometimes write a letter to a parent: a letter that the parent is proud to receive.”

The initiative has contributed towards more SEN and disabled pupils making significant progress. “Far more children are achieving far more,” Ms Johnson continued. “And their parents are keener and more aspirational now. More parents becoming more involved in the life of the school. Several have become reading partners and attendance at school consultation meetings has grown dramatically – from 40 to 90 per cent.”

The journey Dormanstown has taken with parental engagement can be seen in microcosm when Ms Johnson talks about a recent meeting with a parent.“Her little boy came to us when he was five or six. He is autistic and has learning difficulties and could be quite aggressive. He’s now a year 6 leaver and his mum wanted to tell me how much he had changed. She could not have believed that he would change in the way he has. He is now a playground buddy and participates fully in school life.

“What really impressed me was that she asked me if I could direct her to a course where she could learn about managing children’s behaviour when they become teenagers. A few years ago, one of my parents asking me about a course would have been unthinkable.”

When Steve Davies became headteacher of Coopers Lane Primary School in Lewisham, south London, there was a core of around 15 boys whose behaviour was causing real problems at the school.

There were incidents of stealing and although mums were involved in the school dads were not. Mr Davies saw fathers as key to tackling the behaviour issue – and raising the achievement of boys and all pupils at the school.

He explained: “What we wanted was engagement from dads at home and involvement at school because we felt this would be key to improving boys’ behaviour and attainment.”

He went on the front foot, writing a letter to all dads asking them to meet him in a local pub to discuss over a pint how they could become more involved in the school – and help create a positive influence for the boys.

“When they came to the meeting it became clear that they really wanted to be involved but that they hadn’t been asked until now,” Mr Davies said. “Dads do have a lot of skills that can make a difference, such as football or cricket coaching, DIY, cleaning and decorating.”

One Coopers Lane dad, a professional landscape gardener, worked with the children to design and create a peace garden. Dads provided the labour for the project – and saved the school £13,500.

Another has been released by his bank employers to work at the school one day a week, helping the children with maths and IT work and getting involved in an Apprentice-style project with year 6 pupils.

The Coopers Lane approach to increasing engagement with fathers has been captured in their Dads Matters Toolkit. The resource, which details strategies schools can adopt, has been requested by school leaders and educationalists around the UK and even overseas. Almost 300 copies have been requested so far. The toolkit includes reflections from the dads who have been involved in the project.One comment perhaps sums up one of the reasons why it is so important to make sure that your school develops that deep partnership with parents.

“I honestly do believe the Dads Matter group has changed me,” says one. “I am more aware of how important my role as a father is in my daughter’s education, and how rewarding it is to see her go from strength to strength in school.”

• Nick Bannister is an education writer and communications consultant

Further information

The National College has followed up its report, Leadership for Parental Engagement with Leading and Developing Parental Engagement – a resource designed to help school leaders audit and improve their approach to parental engagement. Both publications are available to National College members and can be found in the resources section of the website at

Leadership for Parental Engagement can be downloaded from

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