One hot August day as I nervously sat in the headteacher’s office awaiting the headline figures for my year 11’s back in 2013, I asked myself, what more could we have done? They had been a challenging year group that I had taken on full time at the end of year ten, however all indicators pointed towards a group that had the potential to do well at GCSE. Sadly they were not to be the success we had hoped for. I was devastated when thinking back on the amount of time and effort our staff had put in above and beyond their classroom teaching to try and ensure students secured their best grades. Sitting in the Head’s office we reviewed all that we had done over the last year and evaluated the impact of X, Y, and Z. It dawned on me that the one group of people that have an influence on student’s education had not been involved as much as they could have in all of our action plans and interventions, it was their parents.
I prepared to start afresh with a new bright eyed and bushy tailed year seven group. I gave myself a mission; I would engage these parents as much as I possibly could. I spoke to parents at our first year seven parents’ evening and outlined my aim to involve them as much as I could and promised to effectively communicate with them about their child’s education. I put forward strategies and suggestions for what parents could do at home to engage in their child’s education and explained research outcomes about the difference they can make to their child’s achievements. I tried to fulfil these promises by providing year group newsletters each term and held workshops on how parents can support with homework and revision etc. Parents attended our workshops and read our newsletters and I thought to myself ‘yes I am succeeding at engaging our parents’.
The feeling was short lived as the realisation hit me that it was the same parents attending our workshops and they could already be classed as parents who engage fully with the school. I frequently queried whenever I spoke to parents whether they had received and read our newsletter. The response was often ‘what newsletter?’ or ‘I think so but I can’t remember reading it’. My mission for successful parental engagement had, within the first year, been ineffective.
I am not one to accept failure easily and so I went back to the drawing board and reflected on two key questions:
What exactly do we want from our parents and why are we not getting it?
When the opportunity to be a part of this research and development project came about, I jumped at the chance to explore the issues surrounding parental engagement and find an answer to my questions. I had a very clear idea in my mind that we want parents to talk to students about their school day, we want parents to attend parents’ evening and have a routine at home where they monitor student’s homework, and we want parents to oversee student’s reading as well as a long list of other demands. I set out to survey parents on whether they have routines and to judge how well parents engage with the school and their child. I was determined to make our parents take responsibility for their child’s education! I confidently set out an action plan and was ready to take the bull by the horns and charge ahead… until I began my research!
My reading began with Anthony Feiler’s “Engaging ‘Hard to Reach’ Parents”. His book draws on numerous sources on parental engagement and identifies some of the barriers to engaging parents and presents a number of strategies to effectively engage parents. The reading brought all my previous attempts of parental engagement into question and the reason as to why my efforts had been fruitless became more apparent. It was clear I had adopted a deficit model for understanding the engagement of parents. Barton et al’s research from 2004 perfectly sums up the approach I had adopted.
“Deficit models for understanding parents and education position parents as subjects to be manipulated…They neither take into account the networks of individuals and resources that frame participation in scope, focus, and purpose, nor the unique experiences that frame the parents’ belief and forge parental capital.” (Barton et al., 2004 pg4)
Moreover, when I consider the general ethos and attitudes that many teachers have adopted, the lyrics ‘telling my whole life with his (her) words’ from The Fugees ‘killing me softly’ played in my mind as I read a conclusion from Ruth Schmidt Neven’s research that explained when it comes to parents, schools often take on a ‘blame discourse’. It was as if Neven was a fly on the wall when the all too familiar cries of “well just look at the parents” or the ‘parents’ don’t care’ come from staffrooms and offices of frustrated staff and not forgetting one of the most common refrains after a parents’ evening “I didn’t get to see the parents I needed to”.
Have we become so accustomed to using a ‘blame discourse’ that many of us have developed an addiction to it, that excuses us of some responsibilities as it allows us to easily shift the focus off of ourselves and onto parents and it becomes our default position for justifying why some students do not succeed? That being said is it also fair to say that the ‘blame discourse’ is a two way street and a position that some parents take? If this is the case then how do we break this habit? A starting point could be drawn from John Powells’ book, ‘Happiness is an inside job’, where he very eloquently put that “growth begins when blaming ends”.
As I now stand on the edge of the great myriad of complexities that encompass parental engagement and the mission ahead of me I look back to my original questions of what exactly do we want from our parents and why are we not getting it? And I am forced to reconsider my approach. I have found that the research I have carried out so far has raised more questions than answers for me from considering who exactly are our parents. What barriers exist between our school and parents? And what are we doing as a school to overcome the barriers?
Most importantly will be the shift from what we want as a school from parents to what our parents need to successfully engage in their child’s education. Harris and Gooddall 2007 stated that ‘parents have the greater influence on the achievement of pupils through supporting their learning in the home environment rather than through more formal involvement in school activities’. It has made me re-evaluate the core provision for parents within our school. Does the information we provide for parents through reports, meetings and parents’ evenings fully equip and enable parents to provide this quintessential support at home?
As I restart the journey to succeed in effective parental engagement, one thing is certain that now is the time for the blame to end and let the growth begin!
Mrs A Mc Evoy
Year 10 Progress and Standards Leader
Teacher of RE
Alec Hunter Academy