Anyone who is working or has worked in a school will know that improving parent/carer engagement is one of those amorphous targets that can, at the very least, be difficult to get a clear and consistent picture of, let alone make significant gains within. As schools work with students of different age groups and in such a wide variety of contexts and communities, it is safe to say that there is (as yet) no silver bullet solution.
Why then are schools so intent on engaging with parents/carers of their students? Perhaps the most common reason schools cite are that they feel that by engaging with parents/carers students will be better supported (academically/socially/emotionally/behaviourally) resulting in greater rates of academic progress for the child, and through this, the overall school. There is generally a consistent view amongst professionals in schools that parents/carers who come to school events/meetings, communicate effectively with the school, and support their child with out of school learning are regarded as a positive influence on their child’s progress and attainment. Whereas those parents/carers displaying the opposite behaviours are often viewed as detrimentally impacting on their child’s future. So, what can we, as school leaders/practitioners, do?
The extensive research review and EEF guidance report goes some way to establishing what, based on the current evidence, are likely to be some key areas to consider. What shouldn’t be ruled out at this stage is that there are many other approaches, other than those suggested/discussed in the report, that within individual schools continue to show significant gains are being made. There are also strategies being developed and used from sectors outside of education that have the potential to have a positive impact; some of which are referenced in the report.
A real strength, of the new EEF guidance from a school leader’s perspective is that it is explicit in places about not just what could work but also what strategies are unlikely to work. It goes further still and contextualises strategies and approaches into age/stage contexts
One of the most interesting parts of the guidance (even in this time of unprecedented strains on school budgets) is that the evidence suggests that by making relatively small, low cost and simple changes to the methods (in particular the language used in our communications), there are potentially significant gains to be made. These are ideals that I am sure all schools are interested in, not just in a classroom sense but also so they really can support and achieve the best possible progress for each child. Key to the reshaping of communications are the ideas of
- Making things personal (specific to them/their child)
- Making things easy to engage with (one click response)
- Creating and sharing the social norm thus indirectly suggesting they/their child will be missing out by not acting
- The use of “nudging” language.
These ideas, I believe, are well within the capability of any school to understand and implement.
A word of warning
At this point it is pertinent (after you have stopped reading and already been distracted by ideas of how/what you could/should change) to mention that before deciding on or taking any action you should critically review the current picture. Without establishing a clear and understood “baseline” there is a real risk that a new initiative/change will be seen as a bolt on or fad and thus just be one of those things implemented but with no real knowledge of it’s effectiveness.
The final advice that I would offer is to keep it simple, clear and focused. Whatever you do it has to be integrated into your day-to-date processes/practice as a school and so it is imperative, for all involved, that it is not seen as a bolt on or excessively time consuming.
The EEF ‘Working with parents to support children’s learning’ guidance report will be published in December and will be available here.
Chris Woodcock, Head of School, Durrington High School