Parental engagement: A pragmatic approach


Finding strategies to support your less-engaged parents means looking at how things seem from their perspective. Matthew Nuttall provides us with some examples of what has worked in his experience and how his schools have broken the cycle.


  • You need to celebrate the good things, however small.
  • Helping parents build a parents’ peer network is beneficial.
  • Find ways of encouraging your parents into the school and making staff approachable.   

As an attendance lead in a Manchester primary school, I soon became aware that communication is critical in the education sector, especially if we’re trying to connect with what are rather clumsily termed ‘hard-to-reach parents’.

These are the ones who you might dread speaking to and who will invariably greet you with a glare or even an angry outburst. No matter where your school is located, there will always be an individual or group of parents like this and the trick is to find a way to engage that has relevance and impact.

Finding the positive

In order to overcome the barriers put up by this type of parent, we have to understand why they behave like they do. It is likely that, at some point in their lives, they have had a negative view of school, whether that is through their child or first-hand, when they were students themselves. It would also be fair to say that the less-engaged parents, like everyone else, dread receiving a phone call, text, letter or being beckoned in for a quick chat at the end of the day.

How often do we hear the phrase ‘Break the cycle’ when dealing with a negative situation? When you’re caught up in a self-perpetuating negative situation, it’s up to you to break the cycle.

Something we overlook when dealing with less-engaged parents is the need to celebrate the good things their children do, no matter how small. Encouragement is very powerful and can really stay with a child for a long time. To receive a call about positive behaviour breaks the negativity and can really boost that staff-parent relationship. By doing this, we can show that the experience of the parent will not be the experience of their child, to avoid having the same story play out.

Do your research

Just over a year ago, I finished a project in conjunction with Manchester University. Its initial aim was to improve attendance of children at E-Act Blackley Academy, although it actually focused more on the pastoral care of parents.

A small target group of parents with children exhibiting poor attendance were approached and asked the open question, ‘What difficulties do you have bringing your child to school?’

Although we tried not to jump to conclusions, some of the data obtained was as expected, such as cheaper holidays in term time or poor bedtime routines.

We also noticed a theme – something that hadn’t arisen in our original hunches. Parents spoke of feeling isolated, both at home and in the playground. New parents didn’t have the skills to know when their child should come to school or stay off ill. We also heard from parents who were new to the country or spoke little English.

Parent network

As a school we decided to build relationships, not only with the school and parents, but with parents and parents; essentially we created a parent peer network. This was developed as a means of supporting parents who found it difficult to get their children to school due to jobs, having children in other schools or getting a grumpy child out of bed, for example.

A walking bus was set up to collect children. This was offered to any parent whose child’s attendance was dipping and was a way to help parents. It also meant staff got to build relationships with parents and children which may not have otherwise flourished.

Parents were surprised that the school was doing something so helpful and at no cost to them! That was good for our targeted parents but what about the bigger picture?

Bringing parents in

We set up a Friday breakfast club for parents in the playground every week – an opportunity to pop by and have a chat to staff and parents with a tea and toast or just pick up a drink and go. When this was initiated, parents stayed away for the first two weeks as they thought we were up to something. By the fourth week we had run out of coffee and were having to tell parents to leave as school started 30 minutes ago and we needed the playground for the children!

The playground was becoming a hub of activity with parents mixing outside of their normal social groups. We were trying to build camaraderie and make the school a happy place for parents as well as children.

ESOL classes were set up in school via a local charity and all parents with EAL were invited, especially parents that were new to the school. Parents came into the building and started to get more familiar with staff and vice versa. Again, new social groups began to form and people found friendships in what was once quite an overwhelming environment.

Creating a welcoming ethos

School should be a happy, welcoming place where lasting and meaningful friendships are made. This was becoming more evident, with friendships developing between parents and staff being considered more approachable.

Parents weren’t dropping their children at the gates and leaving. They were hanging about chatting or coming to school with other parents and children. They were even popping into school with a greater presence at parents’ evening, assemblies, exhibits and celebrations. All this helped to increase attendance by 3% in the first year.

A pre-nursery group was also set up to support families whose children would be starting at nursery in the next year. Children and parents were invited to experience taster activities and meet the teachers. The parents made friends and started socialising away from the group. They got to know the teachers as people and how they interacted with their child, rather than authoritative figures who opened the doors each morning.

There is no magic formula to improving parental engagement. It’s just a case of showing empathy and understanding so that bridges can be built and  conversations develop that matter.

About the author

Matthew Nuttall’s career background stems from HR roles in both public and private sector environments. He then moved into the education sector, working in primary school settings where he began to focus more on pastoral care and attendance management. He really enjoys working with children and parents to ensure they are more engaged and to improve the experience of interacting with school.

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Sarah Murdoch

Sarah Murdoch is Publisher for Attendance Matters Magazine. She is supported by an experienced team of commissing editors, editors, and designers.

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