Parents can be scary.
I know this from my own experience – I’ve never found anything more terrifying than the look I (deservedly) used to get from my mother when I’d been a nuisance at home.*
And here at The Key, we know our members can sometimes find parents a bit intimidating. As a researcher for the 'Pupils and parents' area of our school leader website, I’ve recently fielded a number of questions from members regarding dissatisfied or angry parents.
Misbehaving parents have also been a fixture in the media of late; The Independent claimed that one school had had to ask parents not to smoke cannabis when picking up their children, while The Telegraph reported that a children's football league has complained of violent behaviour from parents at games.
So when I attended our recent conference on parental engagement, I was half expecting a series of talks on how a school can deal with a group of angry parents outside its gates.
The reality, however, was quite different.
Rather than: ‘How do we handle scary parents?’, the overriding question from delegates at the event seemed to be: ‘How can we get them to come in?’
Another problem they raised was the difficulty of engaging those parents who did not speak English fluently, many of whom had arrived in the country only recently.
It was a bit of a eureka moment for me, and perhaps for some of my fellow delegates, when Dr Janet Goodall, a lecturer in education at the University of Bath, made the following point:
“For some parents, schools are a very intimidating environment.”
She told us about one parent she had met who, due to her own experiences of education, couldn’t enter a school without breaking into a cold sweat.
Dr Goodall also pointed out that education systems are very different in some other countries, and so schools in the UK can be a big unknown for newcomers.
This came as something of a surprise to me. My own mother is the daughter of a primary school teacher and a secondary school headmaster and was, as far as I could tell, absolutely in her element at parents’ evenings or school plays. In fact, my parents and my friends seemed to see school events as a great social occasion.
So the idea that someone’s mother or father could be put off finding out about their child’s progress or watching the apple of their eye perform in their class assembly through sheer fear of what they would encounter was new to me.
But it was evidently not new to many of the delegates, who nodded in agreement as speakers told of their own experiences with reluctant parents.
Luckily, the experts had some suggestions.
Dr Goodall suggested trying to hold meetings with parents in a space where they are more comfortable: local community centres, perhaps, or a café.
She explained that one school had even filmed a lesson and asked a local supermarket to play the video, so that parents could see what it was actually like inside the school. Apparently, parents flocked to it.
We also heard from Kate Vincent, the headteacher of Banister Primary School in Southampton, which has a high proportion of pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) and high pupil mobility rates.
She said that the school runs ‘share walks’, where parents of new pupils are invited in for a relaxed and informal tour of the school. Kate explained that the walks are aimed at “de-mystifying” school for parents, and welcoming them to school life.
The school also tries to boost parents’ confidence by asking them to share their talents and knowledge with other parents and pupils. Parents are asked to join a cookery group, where they take it in turns to show their peers how to make a favourite family meal, and to run sessions where they teach pupils dances, songs and crafts from their cultural heritage.
Encouraging parents to take part in these kinds of events won’t necessarily be easy, and you will probably find that the first few you put on are a little undersubscribed. But what Kate and the other speakers came back to time and again was how important it is to keep trying and, if that doesn’t work, try harder.
Persistence and creativity, it seems, are the tools schools need when building a strategy for parental engagement. And, as Dr Goodall says, “When you get the parent, you get the child.” With the support of parents who feel welcome and involved in school life, schools have a much better chance of helping pupils to succeed.
*Except for the time I saw a seal when swimming off the coast of Devon and thought it was a shark. I have never swum so fast in my life. My mother, obviously, found it hilarious.