When headteacher Sarah Stokes realised that communication with parents was not as it should be, she knew her school would have to rise to the challenge. In this article she explains how they developed their own solution at Dormansland Primary School through a parent forum.
- The parent forum was established in order to provide a sustainable system of keeping parents involved.
- Establishing suitable terms of reference is a key step in ensuring the effectiveness of your parent forum.
- Two representatives from each class provide the flexibility needed when scheduling meetings and making sure parents do not feel under pressure.
In the summer of 2016, eighteen months after I had taken over the substantive headship at my school, I thought I was communicating effectively with my parent community. I wrote to them regularly about important issues, I sent out newsletters, we ran curriculum evenings for parents, as well as various PTA events throughout the year. Along with the statutory reporting systems that were also in place, our communication with parents seemed effective.
So it was with some disappointment that I read the results of our annual parent survey that summer and discovered that my perception of effective communication between home and school differed greatly from that of the parents themselves. They felt that the school was not doing all it could to involve them in the life of their children in school and I couldn’t ignore this. Something had to change.
I researched approaches for working with parents in other schools. I read as much as possible about effective home–school partnerships and I thought about how we could implement a sustainable system that would provide a two-way channel of regular communication, where parents’ ideas would be given appropriate consideration by school leaders and where we could share information about specific school projects and priorities. We held our first parent forum meeting that autumn and I have never looked back.
Making the system inclusive
While I recognise that the parents who take on the role of class representatives and members of the parent forum are often the same parents who run the PTA and are confident in communicating openly with the school on a regular basis, we have worked hard to ensure that our school culture has enabled all parents to feel that their views are sought and valued.
Class representatives seek opinion from their children’s classes through class-specific social media groups, and speak separately to any individual parents who choose not to sign up to these groups. They recognise that they have a duty to reflect the opinions of every parent and ensure that this is done with sensitivity and diligence.
The impact of the pandemic
We are conscious that the pandemic damaged our usual lines of open communication at a time when parents needed us most, and we are determined this year to repair this primary concern as we re-establish and deepen our links with families. Our parent forum is instrumental in rebuilding parent confidence in the school.
The future for our parent forum
The forum itself has a built-in dynamism through the nature of its creation. Each year, we say goodbye to our Year 6 parent representatives and welcome two new members from our new Reception cohort. With new people come new ideas and it is this sense of shifting perspectives that enables us to feel fresh and enthused by the prospect of another year of working together on new projects. By its own design, the forum never stands still.
My top 10 tips for running a successful parent forum
1. Plan on meeting at least once every half term. This gives you regular opportunities to update parents with information in person, as well as a reasonable timeframe within which to implement any suggestions between meetings.
2. Spend time at the first meeting explaining the purpose of the forum and how this differs from other meetings. Your ‘Terms of reference’ (see an example in the Toolkit) is the most important document you will produce for this group. Make sure it reflects the purpose and parameters of the meetings and that everyone involved understands it fully. Review this with your new team of representatives at the start of each academic year.
3. Treat your parents well. There is a lot of pressure involved in the role of representing the voice of an entire class, and this should never be underestimated. They must know that their contributions are appreciated.
4. Encourage positive feedback as well as constructive criticism. This is just as important as focusing on potential areas for improvement, and it’s lovely to have positive parent comments to take back to staff.
5. Ideally, have more than one representative per class. This didn’t happen overnight for us and we started our forum with some classes significantly under-represented. Now we have two representatives for every class, which allows for greater flexibility at meetings, as the pressure is off for individuals to feel they need to attend each one.
6. Invite other senior school leaders and governors to attend meetings. It is vital that the governing body hears from parents, and this is the ideal forum for these discussions. It also enables parents to find out about wider school initiatives without always hearing it
7. Take time to create a meaningful agenda that focuses on positive change. Ideally the meeting should not be too long (ours usually run to an hour), so it is crucial that everyone is clear about what will be discussed.
8. Use an online scheduling tool, such as Doodle, to organise the next meeting. Keep an eye on any parents who are regularly excluded due to their work commitments, and offer a range of alternative times, including at least one evening option via an online meeting platform. Vary the options so that all representatives can attend a couple of meetings a year.
9. Ensure that all parents know who their class representatives are and how they can contact them. Publicise the meetings and circulate the minutes widely.
10. Be brave. Inviting parents to tell you how the community feels about your school can be a fairly daunting prospect. Know your school, know your own reasons for making decisions and be prepared to agree to make improvements, with continued parental support.
At the same time, it takes an equally brave leader to stand their ground and defend an unpopular decision with parents. Being able to explain in more detail the thinking behind your decisions and answering direct questions is extremely powerful, and this will carry far greater resonance when being communicated back to the wider parent community.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
Sarah Stokes is an experienced primary school leader with nearly 30 years’ professional teaching experience, based mainly in London and the southeast of England. Her key professional interests include: supporting the mental health of a school community, creating learning opportunities, working effectively with parents, exploring neurodiversity, developing positive behaviour strategies and reducing the impact of complex trauma on children. You can contact Sarah directly at email@example.com