Partnership with parents

It has been widely recognised that schools working with parents in partnership is important for children’s academic learning and achievement. It is often part of a school’s mission statement or in a school’s prospectus or welcome information that parent partnership is valued and encouraged.

“Parents play a crucial role in supporting their children’s learning, and levels of parental engagement are consistently associated with better academic outcomes.”

Education Endowment Foundation 2018

Partnership with parents

There is also growing recognition of the need to work with parents and families for not only academic objectives but for children’s wellbeing and ultimately their overall success in schools.

“Research shows that if parents and carers are actively involved in their children’s learning and activities at school, they will be more likely to thrive both in terms of academic performance and in their general wellbeing.” Engaging with all parents and carers, Anna Freud Centre.

“Parent/carer engagement is important because working together (with mothers, fathers and carers) has been shown to have a promising impact on the wellbeing, attendance, behaviour, sense of school belonging, intellectual development and children across a range of social and economic backgrounds.” Anna Freud Centre, Mentally Healthy Schools 2021

But how well do schools really manage this?

Where schools and parents are proactive it can be argued that there is a good level of partnership working and support, but there are many families who find it harder to access school and feel marginalised or uncomfortable within the school system.

Schools across the country are developing their pastoral teams and more often now are including parent support workers in their teams or parent support advisers. The benefits of this can be huge in enabling families to feel a greater level of support when they are facing challenges that they need support to manage or overcome. Many schools have proactive approaches and pastoral staff who are able to bring parents alongside them to enable them to feel part of the school community and perhaps we need to think about how schools engage parents, rather than how parents engage with schools.

All too often, parents or carers and particularly parents or carers of vulnerable children, feel anxious about coming into school, maybe from their own negative experiences of being at school, through fear of being judged or maybe due to being in a state of defence for their child who may be struggling to manage in the learning environment against a backdrop of the ever-growing expectations of school life.

So how do we go out to them to help them to feel welcome, supported? How can we really build a working alliance that is based on the same principles of working with children: trust, non-judgemental care and empathy?

From my own experience, I know that actively building genuine relationships is the key to creating a working alliance and bringing parents in to be alongside their children. Sometimes we have to go out to them and be prepared to visit, talk and really listen to parent’s experiences in their own homes to enable them to feel safe enough to begin to trust what may seem a hostile or closed system. That’s not to say that it is always possible, but I feel we have a responsibility to our children and our families to create a partnership wherever possible to best meet the needs of our children.

During my time working as the manager of a multi-disciplinary team and manager of an alternative provision for primary aged children at risk of or who had been excluded, I knew the importance of working with our parents. Our Thrive Education Zones provided a nurture approach, and this centred on working alongside not only the schools the children came from, but also their parents and carers. We knew this was vital and wanted to bring them together as part of our approach to best support their children to thrive and stay within education.

We knew that the parents and carers were often dealing with their own challenges and all of them were disillusioned with the system and at a loss to know how to help their children. They often felt alone in managing life as well as trying to manage a family and the additional challenges that come for children who are struggling at school and at risk of exclusion. So, we created the role of child and family mentors who supported not only the children but the families, too. Their role involved supporting the children for the three days in our Thrive Education Zones and then, for part of the fourth day, back in their mainstream school. They used the rest of their time on the fifth day of each week to visit the parents at home and to check in with them, stay for a cup of tea and to see how things were going. This proved to be invaluable in encouraging our parents and carers to feel heard and supported and gradually this allowed them to feel able to come to some of the sessions with the children and to participate in our family afternoons each week.

We invited parents every Wednesday afternoon to join us for coffee and a catch-up. This was a chance for us to check in with them to see how things were and to encourage them in the first instance to feel welcome and able to come into school. It was during these sessions that parents were able to talk to each other, to offload and feel that real sense of belonging when you talk to someone who has similar experiences to you.

We then invited the children to come and join us with their parents for drinks and biscuits. This was a relaxed and informal time for children and their parents to be together. We then had a structured activity like decorating biscuits, making marshmallow and spaghetti towers or making clay figures that we encouraged the children to do with their parents.

These activities were essential in allowing the parents and children the chance to have time away from the ‘busy-ness’ of home and to have time being together, laughing, having fun and reconnecting with each other. Often our children and their parents struggled to show care to each other and to communicate initially, but this became a magical time where they were able to enjoy being together, having fun doing activities. The teachers and child and family mentors joined in and supported the activities with the parents and the most crucial element of all was the sense of belonging that these afternoons had for everyone.

It felt like a simple approach but is one that I know was invaluable in helping our children begin to succeed in school and for them to gain a sense of belonging and purpose again in their educational journey. This was a precious part of our timetable in the alternative provision and it is something I believe that needs to be incorporated into the school life of all children as a way to really create a sense of wellbeing and belonging for all.

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