Practical approaches to parental engagement

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The family is often the key to attendance issues. In this article, Stephen Burnage argues that engagement through the use of supportive strategies is more likely to be successful in improving attendance.

Summary

  • Identify what families need and want and work with them; don’t impose school needs on families.
  • Building sustainable and productive attendance partnerships takes time but has more impact.
  • Try a range of strategies since there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ model.
  • Train staff on how to engage effectively with challenging parents.

During 2015–16, there were nearly 300,000 pupils across schools in England who were persistently absent from school, missing an average of six weeks of school each year. Poor attendance is the first step in a long-term cycle of low attainment, anti-social behaviour, crime and unemployment.

Some schools take what can be called a ‘sticking plaster’ approach to improving attendance. These schools will spend time and money trying quick fix strategies to get learners back into the school building. Whilst these strategies may well bring about short-term results, these often prove to be unsustainable and children fall back into patterns of poor attendance.

Taking a more sustainable view of strategies to improve attendance means that successful schools will work with families to explore barriers to learning, will engage with parents and carers to build positive learning partnerships and will work constructively to reach the most difficult-to-engage families. How do those successful schools do this?

Identifying children and families in need

There are two clear and, often separate, categories that it is important to identify:

  1. The children who are not attending enough school.
  2. Those children whose home lives are affecting their ability to make the most out of their education.

Frequently, children who are persistently absent face multiple and overlapping needs within the home, including substance mis-use, mental and physical health issues, housing issues, poor family relationships and poverty.

Whilst absence and absentees are easy to monitor within school, it is important that schools also identify those children who may be attending, but who achieve low attainment due to issues at home, poor behaviour or lack of concentration in class.

Effective schools often start by gaining information and evidence to address the following key questions:

  1. Do you know all the children in school who do not live with their birth parents?
  2. What arrangements are there in school to identify and safeguard the wellbeing of pupils who need help because of someone else’s circumstances or behaviour?

Once you know who the families in need are, then you must establish the right environment to work with them.

Finding the right venue

Having a range of complex problems does not mean that parents don’t care about their children, or that they are automatically resistant to positive involvement with the child’s education. Again, to facilitate improved engagement with these parents, it is useful if schools can clearly answer the following key questions:

  1. What procedures does the school have in place for engaging the parents and carers of vulnerable children?
  2. Is there a policy for identifying and supporting children who may be affected by parental issues?
  3. How do you know that the above policy is working?

Parents can be fearful of attending school meetings, due to their own experiences at school or because they see schools and teachers as authority figures and are worried about what might happen if they do open up about the challenges they are facing.

Staff who liaise with the home are therefore advised to suggest meeting somewhere the parents feel comfortable, such as their home or a community setting. This helps to break down the barrier between home and school and demonstrates that you are there to work with the family, not against them.

Strategies that work include meeting with parents at local working men’s clubs, miners’ welfare centres, cafés and or even in the foyer of the local supermarket. If none of these appeal, then meeting at a local primary school can often be a safe alternative to the intimidating environment of a secondary school.

Schools often run different events, such as coffee mornings and book clubs, so that parents can meet others in similar circumstances and build up a support network. A headteacher of a specialist sports college offered access to the school gym facilities, parent and child sporting activities and ‘lads and dads’ football sessions each Saturday.

Group sessions and parenting courses are effective at improving parenting skills, as are classes that support those with English as a second language. This reinforces to parents the importance of education for their children.

Seven practical approaches

Having greater parental or carer involvement isn’t just about helping at the school disco. Pupils whose parents actively engage with school attain more, so it’s vital to make that connection.

Reluctant parents with low self-esteem cite their own negative school experiences for lack of engagement, so what can be done to encourage them to join in?

1 What do they want?

This may seem an obvious question but it is often omitted. What does a parent want from the school and for their child? What areas are the most important to them?

It could be a strategy to support outstanding learning and progress at home, or it might be developing better social skills and behaviour. You might find asking this question opens up a continuing, positive dialogue with hard-to-reach parents, simply because no one else has ever bothered to ask them.

2 Parent profile

For reluctant parents and carers, it’s particularly important to find out what makes them tick. Do they have any outside interests? You might find they have a skill that the school could use, like speaking a second language or a talent for arts and crafts.

Taking the ‘glass half-full’ approach and focusing on the parents’ assets will raise their self-esteem and help build positive relationships. By getting to know the hard-to-reach parent, the school is saying, ‘You matter as much as your child.’

3 Connect

It’s vitally important to keep parents up to speed with what’s happening in school and with their children at all times. Poor communication is a common complaint from parents. Letters sent home in the school bag often go unread, assuming they’ve reached their destination in the first place.

Chatting at the school gate is beneficial but can be hit or miss. A more effective solution to sketchy communication is a school mobile app for parents. These apps allow parents to access the latest school news and important dates, as well as receive instant alerts such as an activity being cancelled. This saves time and improves relationships by keeping parents fully aware.

4 Support workshops

Supporting pupils with their learning at home is paramount, although some hard-to-reach parents feel ill-equipped, especially if their child has behaviour issues. Offering drop-in workshops during and after school is a way to bridge the gap, particularly if parents know their involvement can really make a difference. Workshops could cover basic numeracy and literacy support guidance.

5 Promote school spirit

To encourage school spirit from the outset, set up a ‘boast board’ where teachers, governors, parents and pupils can post on the subject of what excites them about the coming school year. Regular blogging or podcasts can engage hard-to-reach parents by introducing topics they relate to.

Posts don’t have to focus purely on what’s happening in school. There might be a discussion on different behaviour management techniques or there could be a recipe for paper mâché. School Facebook and Twitter accounts can be used to share your blog, raising the school’s profile. Social media is useful for school trips too, so parents can share in the experience and keep track of what’s going on.

6 Speak their language

With an increasing number of parents with little or no English, it can be a challenge getting them involved with school. Add to that any cultural differences that may preclude certain activities and you may hit a brick wall.

The ideal solution is to ask for help from community leaders or other parents who understand the situation. These helpers should be able to start building a relationship for the school and encourage some form of involvement, however small.

7 The role of school staff

Just as schools may provide a form of structure that is lacking from their home life, individual teachers may also represent a positive relationship that the child is missing. A trusting, caring relationship with an adult can be a key protective factor for children, and this role can, where appropriate, be taken by a teacher or other member of school staff.

Conclusion

We know that direct, positive support provided by schools to families in need has a great impact on the schools involved, the learners and the families themselves. Once successful parental intervention is in place, outcomes from schools demonstrate improvements in attendance and attainment for the most disadvantaged children, while also significantly improving the family’s quality of life.

About the author

Steve Burnage has spent over 25 years teaching in and leading challenging secondary schools across the UK. Steve writes, delivers and hosts training and consultancy in schools, colleges and conference venues across the UK, Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

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About Author

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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