Opinion: Marc Rowland on working with parents

15 December 2017

Author: Marc Rowland,

‘They muck you up, your mum and dad’

When I started secondary school, some time ago, I was hauled into the headteacher’s office (for a crime I obviously didn’t commit). The head promptly told me ‘your mother was just as bad’.  

As far as Mr Colin Evans was concerned, my mother may not have meant to muck me up, but she had. She’d filled me with the faults she had. And added some extra, to ensure I was equally as bad.

Such lazy attitudes may be less explicit in today’s schools. There are some excellent examples of good practice which are exemplified in this little known report from the Department for Education. But there is some way to go before we can claim our education system works effectively for all parents. And it really matters. Research from the University of Missouri shows that where teachers have positive perceptions of parents, their pupils are more likely to be successful. So how we talk about parents, how we perceive them matters. How teachers work with parents matters. Some quick wins:

  • Don’t delegate relationship building with families from less fortunate backgrounds to Teaching Assistants ‘because they know the community’;
  • Family Support workers should pay a proactive role in school life, not simply be the go to person for families facing the challenging circumstances. These families should have relationships with teachers too;
  • Don’t overcomplicate home learning. Every young person, regardless of background will learn more through an extended vocabulary through reading for pleasure. Homework at primary school has been the biggest source of arguments between my daughters and I. Which is all the more galling when it has no impact on learning;
  • Consider what training teachers have had in building and sustaining good relations with parents;
  • Consider what parents of all backgrounds can bring to enrich and improve school life, rather than focus on a deficit model;
  • Don’t make assumptions about families. It may be true that some families have had a difficult experience of education themselves, but such statements are often made without any robust evidence. It is important to talk to parents, invite them in to talk, find out about their lives. This harrowing article from the FT describes the lives of families where the cold wind of poverty blows through their home every day. Insecure employment, insecure housing, reduced community services, limited open spaces to play, community tensions, insecure futures, insecure lives. Let’s show these families some apricity. Show them they belong. One teacher I met recently told me how she was exasperated by one pupil who’d never do his homework. She then realised that he sat on a washing machine in a launderette until 8.00pm each night waiting for mum to finish work.    

A cursory look at some Pupil Premium website statements illustrates the point about the perceptions of vulnerable families and how they are perceived. Barriers to learning are listed as:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse in the family;
  • Mental health issues in the family including the pupils;
  • Domestic Violence.

Firstly, these can be features of any family. Secondly, there are possible issues around confidentiality from such statements. Thirdly, it risks embedding negative perceptions and stereotypes of families. The next link on from the statement says ‘if you think your child may be eligible for free school meals…’. Such statements illustrate the unexpected consequences of good intentions. Is it surprising that some families will not engage?

A consistent feature of schools that struggle to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils is a sense of blaming parents for what they don’t do. The most effective schools recognize that some families find parenting challenging and support them. But primarily they focus on overcoming children’s barriers to learning in the classrooms by maximising access to great teaching, building their oral language, their self-regulation skills, their social skills, their vocabulary, their metacognitive skills, their life experiences, their access to knowledge and cultural capital. This is all underpinned by strong relationships.

It is right to recognise that some people find parenting difficult. A lack of boundaries, poor role models, a lack of access to books, poor social skills and a low value put on education can have an impact on the educational achievement of children. But it is fundamentally important that this is not used as an excuse. It’s how schools tackle these issues that matter. If parents are held in unconditional positive regard, then a culture of high expectations, difficult conversations with families and non-negotiables are easier to implement. So, let’s change the language we use about parents. And as Jim Davies from the children’s society says in his talk ‘Leaving Poverty at the School Gates’, whatever you might think of parents, it’s not the child’s fault.

So what does great parental engagement look like? Lee Abbott from Hillside Primary School in Ipswich says that he’ll know he’s got it right when more parents of disadvantaged families are challenging him for having a supply teacher in the way that many of his professional families do. I love this comment from Lee because he’s not simply demanding his vulnerable families do more at home. He’s trying to empower them.

Scalby School in Scarborough has transformed outcomes for disadvantaged pupils through better relationships with pupils and families within an opportunity area. A whole school approach (that includes professional development) has improved attendance, reduced exclusions, improved progress, improved attainment. Everything is possible. The solutions are there. They start with positive relationships. Let’s prove Larkin’s (and Colin Evans’) cynicism wrong.

Posted on 15 December 2017
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