4 Engaging with students’ parents and guardians

Parents and guardians of students are obvious stakeholders in your school, as the education that is provided there will directly impact their children’s life prospects. When schools and parents work in partnership, students benefit and are more likely to be successful. There is no doubt that parents and guardians can be demanding, but if you manage the relationship carefully, they can be very helpful. The role of the school leader is to find ways of engaging parents so that they support their children in every way possible and reinforce the work that is being done in school.

If you are keen to involve parents in your school and engage them in their children’s learning and academic success, then they need to feel that the school is a welcoming place and that they are valued and respected.

Activity 6: Making parents feel valued and welcome

Think about the scenario of a shy parent who has had limited education but who is very keen for all five of his children to be more literate and numerate than he is. His wife is timid and has a hearing problem. They are a united family unit and their children always attend school. They all have a positive attitude towards learning, except for the youngest child who does not appear to listen in class and can be disruptive.

  • How would you as an individual – but more importantly as a school leader – engage with these parents so that they feel part of the school community?
  • What are the challenges you need to address and how would you find out how far these parents feel that they are welcome in school?

Note down your thoughts in your Learning Diary.

Discussion

It is clear that parents take their own experience of their schooling into their adult lives; this can impact on how much priority they give to their children’s education and the relationship that they themselves have with the school. It is not uncommon for parents to feel in awe of teachers and that they might find it difficult to challenge or question.

The fact that these parents are both interested in their children’s education is a big advantage that you would want to make the most of. You can make sure that you speak to them if they come to school and there may be advantages in making a home visit to meet with them on their own ground. You probably want to talk with them about their youngest child to agree how best to approach their disruptive behaviour, exploring with them what may be at the root of this (possibly a hearing impairment). As these parents have had limited schooling themselves, your communications are likely to be verbal rather than written, but you may also consider how best to communicate with the mother: if she lip reads, you need to make sure you face her when you speak.

In more general terms, you can invite these parents (through their children) to open days, tours of the school, performances, forums, etc., being sure to greet them when they arrive as guests – the more they feel your individual interest and attention, the more welcome and valued they will feel.

You are likely to have some level of engagement with parents whose children are enrolled in your school. Some of these relationships may be excellent. However, it may be useful to audit your ongoing school activities to determine where parents might become more fully engaged and to check that all parents are treated equally.

Activity 7: Auditing your school’s engagement with parents

Reflect for a moment on your school and consider the statements in Table 2, scoring your school out of 10 for each one (where 10 is full agreement).

Table 2 Audit of your school’s engagement with parents.

StatementScore out of 10
My school holds meetings at least once a term with all parents to discuss their children’s progress
There is an active parent–teachers association, or some forum that does not limit its activities to fundraising
Parents are welcome in the school and have easy access to their subject teachers to discuss their child’s progress or to express concerns, including a suitable space to meet
The school get back promptly (within three days) to parents when dealing with complaints
There are current parents who are members of my SMC
There are events for parents that focus on how to help their child at home with their studies
Sometimes parents visit classrooms to contribute their knowledge and skills to the learning
Parents have a calendar of important dates in the school’s academic, social and sport-related events
A range of parents attend events such as special assemblies
The school recognises the diversity in parents (literacy, language, prior education, availability, etc.) and is committed to including all of them as stakeholders.
Total

Look carefully at the list you have generated.

  • Are there any other activities that you could easily take on?
  • Which activities would involve more changes for you?
  • Which activities are the parents involved in more?
  • Which activities contribute most to your school goals and development plan?

Note down your thoughts in your Learning Diary. At the end of the unit you will have the opportunity to revisit this audit and make a plan for next term.

Figure 5 It is important to engage with your students’ parents.

While these are not all the ways in which parents could be involved in their child’s school, the audit may give you some ideas about how to improve. If you total up your scores, you will end up with a percentage score as to how far you engage parents in your school.

This audit may have prompted you to think about other ways that you might engage with parents and involve them more in school life.  Make a note in your Learning Diary of any ideas you may have for engaging parents more. In Activity 9 you will have the opportunity to revisit this audit and make a plan for next term.

When parents are engaged with the school as stakeholders in its success, they can help to solve problems and address difficulties. By talking to them you can understand issues from their perspective and find ways to tackle factors that have a detrimental effect on students’ progress, learning and performance.

Case Study 3: Mr Bharti investigates the dropout of students after Class VIII

Mr Bharti has been the school leader in a secondary school for five years. He was the proud father of four girls but had grown increasingly worried about the female students’ drop-out rate in his school, as he could see that perhaps his enthusiasm for their education was not having an impact. He noticed that, year-on-year, while the female students’ performance was consistently far higher than that of the males in the Class X board examinations, they made up only 20 per cent of the cohort.

Mr Bharti was an English teacher and not that confident in maths, so he asked the maths subject head to help him look at the data more systematically. What he asked him to do was to look at the list of female students who dropped out in Class VIII two years earlier and then – based on their performance in maths at that time – to make a best guess of how they would have performed if they had stayed on. When he checked the names and talked with their teacher he found out that of the ten girls who dropped out, four scored in the top ten of maths students in their final end-of-year tests and only two were below average.

At the same time, Mr Bharti looked at the list himself and noticed that eight of the ten female students who dropped out came from the same village. He decided that this problem could not be solved without engaging with the parents of these students, so he determined to find out more about why this was happening and what might be done to resolve the inequity. Mr Bharti was able to gather information to identify a trend that was impacting seriously on the learning of a number of students in his school. He resolved to find out more from the parents of these students.

Activity 8: Investigating student drop-out rates

Make some notes in your Learning Diary about the difficulties Mr Bharti might encounter and how he might take an approach that brought the best results for the girls affected.

Discussion

As a school leader, it is easy for you to forget that your work is not limited only to finding solutions to problems relating to teachers teaching well, students learning and running the administration. What Mr Bharti did that was remarkable, because he addressed a basic issue that many schools face: that of female students dropping out. He used data that was in the public domain to try to find the answer to a more important question: ‘If female students’ performance is so good at Class X, what do we need to do to keep girls in school after Class VIII to make it even better?’ This question helped his small team of teachers to focus on finding ways to improve enrolment and performance. The staff decided to reach out to parents, talking to them about their difficulties and trying to find solutions to help keep their daughters in school. He and his team of teachers decided to look for solutions outside the school – with the parents as stakeholders in their child’s educational success.

There may well be some difficulties in the conversations with parents, due to:

  • apprehension about being chastised
  • apprehension of their beliefs feeling challenged
  • their feeling that, economically, there is no alternative.

But it may be that some very practical things are uncovered, such as problems in getting safely to and from school. However, the simple fact that the school leader was so interested in their daughters’ education that he visited their homes motivated the parents of potential drop-outs to keep their daughters in school. Mr Bharti decided that in future, all Class VIII girls will receive at least one home visit every term as a means to encourage ongoing attendance and continuity.

If your students’ parents are to work closely with you to help the school succeed, you need to communicate regularly with them and provide openings for them to communicate with you. This may be in the form of meetings, informally at the school gate or on an individual basis regarding specific students.

Once you have this open communication, you can share issues and seek help with solutions, just as Mrs Chandra did in the following case study.

Case Study 4: Mrs Chandra’s security solution

Mrs Chandra’s school had not had any repairs or maintenance for some time. Recently the boundary wall had broken and fallen down, leaving the whole school site insecure. Although it was in a very poor area, she enjoyed the support of her students’ parents and the students came to school willingly and regularly. In one of the parents’ meetings she mentioned the problem about the wall and was delighted when two brothers, who both had children enrolled in the school, offered to organise a working party to repair the wall. They also suggested using some of the older students to help. While this was being organised and the funding sought for materials, the brothers got together several of the fathers and uncles of other students to take turns to help guard the school at night.

Mrs Chandra had spent a great deal of time with the parents since coming to the school, encouraging them to feel that the school was theirs and that the success of their children depended on them to a large extent. She encouraged a widespread pride in the school among all parents. She felt that this kind offer to help was a direct result of the mutual respect she shared with her students’ parents.

Activity 9: Make a plan for engaging with parents

Go back to the audit that you did in Activity 7 and identify where you could make progress in parent engagement. In your Learning Diary, make a plan (possibly involving your deputy, if you have one) about what you can do next term and then in the longer term.

Set yourself a few easy targets for improving engagement with parents and guardians in your school. For each activity or target you set, be sure to indicate the benefit that this will bring to the school and student learning.

Discussion

You may already do a number of things to involve parents in your school – but there will probably be more initiatives you could take, such as:

  • hosting a discussion about homework policy
  • getting the students to conduct a survey about their parents’ views
  • sending success postcards home
  • holding an ‘open house’ once a month after school for parents to talk to specific teachers.

You do not need to do everything at once, but you will find that once you start these conversations with parents, more will follow, and your students will feel direct benefits from the joined-up approach.

An important part of working with parents in your school involves capacity-building so that they are aware and informed, and can contribute more fully to the school’s vision and goals. This might include helping parents become effective representatives on the SMC or parent–teacher associations. It can be hard for parents to focus on the whole school rather than just their child, but in roles where they represent parents, they need to understand that it is important that they advocate for others, not just themselves.

Activity 10: Enabling parents to be representatives

Make some notes in your Learning Diary about how you might enable parents to take on roles at the school where they become the voice of the local community’s parents. Perhaps think of some of the parents at your school who are accepted by the local community and could also be looked upon as leaders and so could naturally step into this role and do it well. Are there other parents who speak out but are not necessarily representative of other parents’ opinions? Try to draw up a set of six guidelines you might give to a parent representative.

Discussion

You might have thought about some things you don’t want parents to do (such as making personal statements about teachers), or about general guidelines such as observing confidentiality or taking a holistic view of school life. There is no doubt that an engaged parent who is well connected with other parents and who can speak up for student learning would be a real asset to you in leading the school – not just in terms of passing information to parents, but also in terms of passing ideas from parents back into the school. They could also be useful in facilitating other parents in identifying problems and solutions. But this is not necessarily a skill that all parents have, and those that come forward for these roles are not necessarily the most suitable. As a school leader you need to enable a cross-section of parents to take up roles as representatives and to support them in developing their skills and confidence.

Are there any other aspects of your school (or, more importantly, the school development plan) that they could be involved in?

You might also act to organise parents so that they can help each other more informally. If they are intimidated or anxious about coming to school or meeting a teacher, you could encourage other parents to act as intermediaries or ‘friends’ (see Case Study 5).

Case Study 5: Mr Chowdhary sets up a parents’ friend scheme

Mr Chowdhary has recently become the school leader in a small rural school where there has not been a tradition of parents coming to school or the school communicating with parents. He sees this as a big gap that is holding the students back in their learning. It also means that he and the other teachers know very little about the students’ home backgrounds.

He decided to set up a scheme run by parents, for parents. He hoped that this would bridge the gap in communication and give parents the opportunity to raise any concerns.

He talked to the local community leaders and his teachers, and they decided that it would be useful if these ‘parent friends’ were women, and that they initially networked with other mothers using their usual interactions and meetings. Mr Chowdhary sent out an invitation through some of the students and set a date for mothers to come along to a meeting to talk about their role. Only three mothers came to the meeting, but they were all willing to take on the role outlined by Mr Chowdhary, and were pleased when he said there would be a short training session, certificate and even a badge that they could wear.

Once the scheme had been running for a year, a suggestion was made that there should also be male parent friends and Mr Chowdhary set about recruiting volunteers from the fathers.

As a school leader, you may have a well-developed relationship with the parents of your students – or they may already have a forum for discussion what happens at school. But there may be more that you could do as a school leader to promote this communication and support on a continuous basis. You should not see this as a threat to your authority or be worried about the criticism that may come back to you. Feedback from parents is more than likely fuelled by a desire to see their children learn.

Activity 11: Helping your parents to organise and support each other

Think about the parents who are least likely to come to school or have a conversation with you or the teachers. Why are they not engaged, and what might other parents do to enable them to become interested and feel comfortable? Do you have any more confident parents you could approach to help bridge the gap?

Case Study 6: Mrs Rawool helps parents with their own literacy

Mrs Rawool became the leader of a small rural primary school a few years ago. One of the problems that emerged during her first year was the fact that students in Class III and IV were not doing their homework. She decided to go out into to the village and to talk to some of the mothers, explaining the importance of homework and how it provided the opportunity for children to practise their reading and writing. She suggested that perhaps they could help their children with their homework. But then she realised that many of the mothers could not read and write themselves, so they could not help their children.

One mother, Nisha, asked if Mrs Rawool could start a class for her and the other mothers, and agreed to talk to the other mothers to encourage them. Mrs Rawool organised a one-hour literacy class, once a week after school. The students stayed at school and played in the playground while their mothers had lessons with Mrs Rawool. Nisha did a good job in encouraging other mothers to attend and her husband was very supportive, encouraging other fathers to send their wives. Soon the mothers gained confidence to help their children with their homework and Nisha set up a little reading club in her neighbourhood so the mothers could help each other and learn together.

Pause for thought

  • Are there any parents in your school who would be particularly suitable for connecting with certain parents – for example, because they come from the same village or speak the same dialect?
  • Who might you approach initially and how you might explain what they might do?

3 Partnering with community organisations and local businesses