“Do we know that parents matter?”

Donna Wilson, PT Faculty of Health at Mackie Academy

To support our goal of raising attainment & closing the poverty related attainment gap we know that successful learning stems from establishing and developing positive and respectful relationships with our learners, colleagues, parents and the communities we work with. Therefore, to achieve our goal we must revisit all elements that influence attainment and achievement. This article focuses on one – parental engagement.

Picture the scene. It is the end of term 3 and secondary practitioners across Scotland breathe a sigh of relief that they have navigated their way through new assessment arrangements and deadlines have been met. Well done! In doing so how many of us may have reached out to parents to ask for support to enable a learner to successfully meet those deadlines or indeed be encouraged to raise their efforts? (I’m sure other descriptions may be used here). Working with our parents as partners is not a new concept, indeed in Scotland significant legislation was introduced to local authorities and schools in 2006 through the Parental Involvement Act outlining key priorities and expectations.

Since then research relating to how we involve and engage with parents to support learning has increased hugely, Joyce Epstein, Dr Janet Goodall becoming prominent researchers and speakers. The Act was reviewed in 2016 alongside the Governance Review and led to the Scottish Government through the National Improvement Framework, identifying parental engagement as a key driver for improving attainment. But what does that actually mean for us as practitioners and the profession? Having had the opportunity to spend some time as a strategic officer with Parental Engagement as a focus, which in itself is a novelty, I have gained a very different insight and perspective on what education means for parents and the very real barriers that we as a profession have unwittingly created. In the remainder of this article I aim to provide you with some challenge questions but more importantly offer an alternative way to view how we could work with parents that may actually lead to improved partnerships and relationships; diminish the fear of engaging with parents and provide potential marginal gains for raising attainment.

For any parent, their primary concern for their children when they set foot outside the home is “Where are they going; who are they with; what are they doing and are they OK?”. Therefore when their children head to school (all sectors), what do we do to ensure these questions and indeed fears are allayed? How often do we let parents in to see all parts of the school; how many of our staff meet the parents (this is particularly challenging in secondary); do we give parents a chance to see what learning looks like (because its changed a lot since they were at school); when we talk with them do we invite them to tell us about their children so that we can understand and discuss if we think they are OK. Within education, like any profession, we have our own language and set of acronyms and abbreviations, yet when we communicate with parents we tend to forget that our language is not always understood and perhaps we don’t take the time to check for understanding. (Yet we do it with our learners).

The National Improvement Hub and the Engaging with Families toolkit are fabulous resources that give ideas and examples of good practice. Do we ever as a cluster talk about our shared families and how we overcome barriers to engagement? It’s crucial to remember everyone has a very unique school community but lets invest time in building relationships and most importantly don’t leave parental engagement as an afterthought, as part of any improvement planning consider how could parents support learning?

As we set about the business of learning we adopt a range of learning & teaching strategies which utilises a whole other language. Learners are guided and have terms explained to them but do we take the time to share and develop that language with parents? If not how can parents access and understand what their child is learning (via conversations or written communication/materials from school)? This impacts hugely on how the child learns and whether learning is supported effectively at home. The majority of schools across Scotland try hard to engage with parents, some who have developed some fantastic innovative practice. However don’t forget to ask parents what they want to learn or find out about.

About the Author

Donna Wilson’s previous posts have included Acting DHT; Manager Visiting Specialists across Aberdeenshire; Teacher of PE in primary & secondary; Sports Development Officer (Participation & Disability) & most recently seconded Education Officer Parental Engagement. A mum of 4 who juggles the work/life balance daily but gains enormous joy and satisfaction from making a difference in young people lives.