A child's life is divided between school and home. School-Home Support recognises that building a bridge between the two is a great way to help children overcome educational barriers, and research backs this up. In 2003, for example, Professor Charles Desforges at the University of Exeter published a paper showing the importance of parental involvement with a child's education. He found parental involvement has a significant positive effect on children's achievement, with the impact being much greater than differences associated with variations in the quality of schools. So how can we get parents involved?
1. There will be hurdles.
Parents may have had negative experiences of school themselves; there can be cultural differences in the role of, or value placed on, education; parents will have different amounts of time to spare as well as different levels of aspiration for their children. It is best to start tackling these hurdles as early as possible by including parents in the school's induction process. We work in partnership with schools to develop a "Ready for School" programme that prepares families for the transition into primary or secondary school and addresses these issues. This can result in improved levels of school readiness, improved attainment and a good relationship between home and school from the outset.
2. Make bridging home and school part of your school's ethos.
The importance of school-home links should be emphasised to all school staff as well as multi-agency partners so messages can be reinforced by different agencies at different levels. Leaders must also lead by example. In addition to talking about the importance of the relationship between home and school, head teachers should be meeting parents - whether that's at the school gates or elsewhere - and making it a factor when considering other school issues. For instance, schools are currently taking on larger safeguarding responsibilities. Having strong school-home links can help identify safeguarding issues earlier, meaning problems can be resolved before they become crises.
3. Take practical steps to make it easier for parents to engage.
One way to do this is by dedicating an area for parents to come in and meet. I once worked with six schools where each identified a parents' room, where they could meet for coffee mornings, make appointments with teachers, or just relax (particularly attractive for parents with additional caring responsibilities or living in multiple occupancy dwellings with very little space). They also made that room available for multi-agency partners, so parents could have sessions there with professionals such as health visitors and housing advisers. This not only got parents in through the school gates but also demonstrated unity across services. Parents ended up taking ownership of the rooms: they brought in cushions from home and made them look nicer, would organise activities there and use these as opportunities to engage with teachers and ask about their children.
4. It's a two-way street.
Parental engagement isn't just about parents coming into school and asking questions there. It's also about parents being involved at home - asking their children about school, helping with projects, and listening to them read. Support also works both ways: recognise that parents need advocates sometimes. School leaders should have staff that parents can go to and trust for help with things like housing applications and support over the holidays, and must recognise the additional pressures parents may be under. If there's domestic violence at home, for instance, that's going to be a family's priority. One of the ways we work at School-Home Support is to place practitioners in schools to support families with issues like these. Some of our practitioners recently developed workbooks for children and parents to use over the summer. This helps the school monitor how involved parents are with their children's learning and, recognising that results often dip after the holidays, makes parents educational substitutes over the summer - not by setting homework, but by giving families fun, free activities to do together.
5. Keep lines of communication open.
Encourage communication between school staff and parents, and make sure messages going home aren't just negative. Neglecting to mention anything positive can result in the development of an unhelpful "us versus them" dynamic. Sending positive messages home can also build families' confidence to reach out to the school if there's an issue at their end, and empower parents to suggest their own ways to get involved at school. One of our practitioners has been based at a school in Westminster for 13 years and done lots of work to empower parents to get involved at school. With her support, parents there now host regular "international nights" at the school where they bring in food, music and clothing from their different cultures, boosting cohesion and engagement within the school community. If you want families to engage with school, make it fun.
Jaine Stannard is chief executive of School-Home Support