‘It takes a community to raise a child. We are the community, these are our children.’
Research supports what those in education already know – parents‘ influence on learning outcomes can be greater than school influence. A few years ago I attended a workshop on social capital which confirmed the need to build strong and lasting relationships with parents and families in order to give our children the best possible start in life. Following this workshop we worked hard to develop our social capital and were ultimately recognised for our efforts with the Parental Engagement Quality Standard from the Schools Network. We make good use of technology in our work with families but have also developed some very successful ‘non tech’ approaches to ensure we reach out to all our community.
Building an online presence via the school website and blogs has no doubt been of great benefit, giving families a window on children’s learning and the opportunity to engage like never before. The website has recently been changed to make it more visually appealing and less text heavy. We had originally seen the site as a place to put policies and information for parents but most of these were being read less than their paper versions! In short the website was not engaging parents and families, it may have served as a form of online prospectus for new parents but its use was limited and in need of an overhaul. We made use of film and our green screen studio to create a virtual tour of the school, the children were heavily involved in filming with uniform being modelled and described rather than simply written about. The children also described different aspects of the school, writing scripts to run on an auto-cue in the studio. Links to learning are made and again the children play a great role in promoting the use of platforms such as ‘I am Learning’ which support and complement in class activity.
The blogs have undergone significant change over the last few years changing from an online social environment run by the children to a class based resource jointly managed by staff and pupils. Many pupil groups and projects also have blogs to ensure parents have a very clear idea about school residential visits, charity work, assemblies, school and Eco council and much more. Not only do they know about such group and their work, they can actively get involved, contributing and sharing ideas. The new approach to blogging has seen their development as a shared learning resource which is having a positive impact on the children’s education. For many of our children this is significant, having their parents ask about and share in their learning is incentive enough to see school as important. For many, their own school days were less than successful and it is easy to transmit their negativity to the children. Blogging has the potential to enable the children’s work to reach and audience of millions – but it is just that, potential. It doesn’t happen overnight. Most importantly for us it has proved to be a method of engaging parents in their children’s learning in a way that counters their own school experiences.
In addition to making good use of technology to support engagement, we have developed a number of other initiatives that have extended our social capital. One of the most important decision we made was to fund the position of a Family Support Worker. We had discussed this idea for some time before we actually had the money to make it a reality. Julie is not a teacher – a very important factor. She relates to the parents, the hard to reach families who prior to her appointment would never have engaged with school. We had always felt we were not doing enough for those children who would arrive without breakfast, with no socks on or the soles of their shoes missing. We would feed them, find some clothing for them, but we were really just putting a plaster on the problem, not getting to the route of it. Julie is able to follow up these problems without having to rush off to class after, she makes home visits, signposts additional services, helps fill in forms etc… She has set up toddlers groups, parenting classes, basic skills workshops and much more. Most importantly, she has got the parents who need them to turn up!
I have blogged previously about ERIC time and Learning Logs so I won’t say much more here, just reiterate how successful these initiatives have been and continue to be for us. ERIC (Everyone Reading in Class) time was a way of getting more parents into school. Many of them were already on the playground by 3.10pm so it was simply about opening the doors 20 minutes before the end of the school day. The Learning Logs have broken down the barriers many parents felt when faced with rules and regulations around homework, it was about giving them an opportunity to work with their children in creative and expressive ways. There are no restrictions other than the work cannot extend beyond a double A3 page. We have found the parents and children love the chance to use fold out panels, envelopes, models, games and other approaches to explore the learning objectives. In class, staff will make a big fuss of the Learning Logs, they devote time to sharing them and allow the children to talk abut them in detail recognising how important this shared learning is.
We have looked closely at how the curriculum can better support parental engagement and when planning topics staff now ask, ‘how can we involve parents and families in this learning?’ Sometimes it will be inviting them in to a workshop, a series of presentations, an assembly or event at the end of a project. Other times parents will be involved in the introduction where an initial stimulus is developed. Their interest at this stage can be so important to the children sustaining theirs throughout the unit of work. Learning doesn’t just happen when teaching takes place, the more we can do to engage our parents and families the better the chances for our children.