Free article: Parental engagement: working with hard-to-reach families

Published: Wednesday, 05 March 2014

In this article, Professor Ken Reid explores some of the many options for families to play a larger part in school life, with potential benefits for both the children and the parents.


  • The benefits of involving parents and families in school life are considerable, from raising children's self-esteem to boosting basic skills in reading and numeracy.
  • There are many ways in which parents can be given the opportunity to participate in school life, including building links to local businesses and communities.
  • Schemes such as SEAL and the Family Values Scheme can be invaluable in providing structure and resources to families who are keen to enhance their child's development.

An important goal for all schools and teachers is building healthy and successful relations with the parents and families of the children they are educating. These relationships should start as soon as the children have chosen to enter the school and have the potential to become richer and more sustainable over time. The benefits of involving parents and families in school life are considerable. Apart from those outlined above, they include helping the parents and children to develop more effectively by:

  • Improving their children's, and often their own, emotional skills, which can include raising their self-esteem
  • Helping their children to develop to develop their basic skills, including their reading, literacy, numeracy and language skills
  • Encouraging their children to participate in a wider range of activities both in and out of school
  • Raising their children's social skills, improving their peer group relationships and helping them to develop better teacher-pupil and home-school links
  • Providing their children with a deeper sense of security and well-being.

There are many different ways in which schools can work successfully with parents, including those in hard-to-reach families. These include:

  1. Supporting families with their parenting by helping them to understand their child's development and becoming fully aware about their children's home life circumstances. Headteachers and their schools can help parents by:
    • organising workshops on helping parents to understand their child better, including issues such as child development, socialisation processes and a child's cognitive development
    • providing resources to help support good parenting; these could include online materials, parent packs, DVDs and books.
    • informing parents about available support to help with such issues as health and nutrition
    • ensuring that all information available to families is clear, easy to read, age-appropriate and relevant to their children's needs and aptitude
    • encouraging family members to participate in school-based activities, out-of-school activities and involve their children in the school's social, recreational, cultural and sporting programmes.
  2. By communicating effectively with families. This can be achieved by:
    • making sure parents are kept up-to-date with their children's progress, including information on their attendance, behaviour and attainment levels

    • keeping parents aware about parents' evenings, open days, after-school activities, newsletters and special events (e.g. school plays, trips or Christmas concerts)

    • inviting parents into school at least once a year (hopefully, more often) to discuss their children's progress and, if needed and/or necessary, by arranging specific follow-up meetings, often for mutually agreed reasons

    • sending home a sample of their children's work for them to read and review, and to stimulate comment upon their child's progress and achievements. This will also provide parents with an indication of what their children are learning at school

    • keeping parents informed as soon as their child is absent from school, feeling unwell or having any special difficulties (either in terms of learning or behaviour - e.g. being bullied). The use of phone calls, texts, e-mails and letters are usually appropriate for this purpose, although Skyping and the use of specially designed websites are beginning to become more popular

    • asking parents to give feedback on all aspects of school life. This might include, for example, their preferences in terms of communication methods, the timings of meetings, school term dates, and so on

    • ensuring that all home-school communications and correspondence comply with legal requirements, including the Data Protection Act, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Equal Opportunities Act and the Race Relations Act, amongst others.

  3. By involving parents in school activities. This could include:
    • encouraging parents to become school volunteers, helpers or unpaid assistants, subject to the normal legal checks
    • making families aware of any voluntary activities or positions within the school sending out a regular survey to ascertain the interests, talents and availability of parents
    • distributing a monthly calendar of events in which parents and families can participate. These might include special assemblies that are open to parents, sports days, concerts or school plays. This will be of particular help to working families in terms of advance planning.
  4. By involving families with their children in learning activities at home, including homework and any other curriculum-linked activities. These might include:
    • helping parents to enable them to assist their children with their homework, reading, skills and play development
    • the provision of home-school diaries and progress feedback books.
  5. By including families as participants in the decision-making of the school, either through:
    • membership of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), school councils, committees, working parties, focus groups or other parent-led organisations
    • providing appropriate training and/or support for their roles.
  6. By coordinating resources and services to families, pupils and the school with businesses, agencies and other professional support groups, and by helping to provide appropriate services to support the local community when-ever possible. Examples of such activities might include:
    • the use of summer schools
    • linked school and local business partnerships
    • the school becoming involved in local events, such as concerts, summer fairs, church-organised activities or voluntary community activities (e.g. litter picking, beach-clearing, harvesting, etc).


An early attempt to improve home-school relationships can be seen in the development of nurture groups. Originally these were created to help to accelerate the gradual development of learning for less able and more challenging pupils, especially within primary schools. Since then, some schools have started to implement specialist home-school schemes for hard-to-reach families. One such scheme was SEAL, which focused on the social and emotional aspects of children's learning SEAL (2005) is a curriculum resource that aims to develop the underpinning qualities and skills that can promote positive behaviour and effective learning. It focuses on five social and emotional aspects of learning: self-awareness, managing feelings, motivation, empathy and social skills.

The SEAL materials can help children and their parents to develop skills such as understanding each other's points of view, working in a group, sticking at things when situations become difficult, resolving conflict and managing anxiety. The SEAL Scheme aims to develop the building blocks that are already in place in many of our better primary, secondary and special schools. The SEAL activities complement other areas within schools that are generated by having sound social and emotional pathways for learning. Such pathways can include the creation of a good school ethos, circle or buddy time, and personal, social health and citizenship education (PSHCE).

The Family Values Scheme

Another similar, but much more developed and innovative, programme is the Family Values Scheme (FVS), which is being implemented in more and more schools throughout the United Kingdom. FVS involves making contact with hard-to-reach families or with all parents in some particularly demanding and challenging schools, often those located in some of the country's most deprived areas.

The FVS is aimed particularly at families in which the children are between the ages of 3 to 14 and is seen as a way of encouraging families to spend more quality time together. It is unusual in that it is very suitable for those parents with young children, where the parents and their families may not normally place value on learning and education. It is particularly helpful for families in which younger children may have fallen behind their peers in terms of academic progress, especially in relation to literacy and numeracy skills.

The FVS focuses on encouraging the children and their parents to understand and develop 22 family-based values, including learning about such concepts as tolerance, honesty, humility, courage, love and caring. This is achieved through programmes of supported learning and play-based activities, which are organised between the home and the children's schools in a structured and meaningful way.

The participants - the children, parents and their families - can engage in specialised activities both in and out of school, using materials such as themed texts and supporting tools, log files and evaluative schemes. At the same time, they can undertake a range of fun activities that are aimed at promoting a love of learning and school. All the evidence suggests that those schools using the FVS can raise pupils' achievement levels (particularly in literacy and numeracy) and standards of pupil behaviour and attendance, as well as radically improving home-school relationships.

Further resources


Premium and Premium Plus subscribers can download this template document from the Toolkit section:

  • Handout - Practical strategies for working successfully with hard-to-reach families

About the author

Professor Ken Reid, OBE, is the author or co-author of over 20 books on education, some 200+ articles in academic journals and was the Chair of the Welsh Government's National Behaviour and Attendance Review (NBAR). He works regularly with schools and local authorities on improving school attendance. Ken can be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

First published on this website in March 2014.

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