Today, Dr Janet Goodall, Bath University lecturer in Educational Leadership and Management and renowned expert in parental engagement with children’s learning, writes for Relational Schools

janet-goodall-28165-0049Janet is a lecturer in Educational Leadership and Management. She has been an active university teacher and researcher for a number of years, working on a wide range of issues, such as federations of schools, the evaluation of the impact of CPD in schools, the implementation of workforce reform, and a multisector project looking at organisations which perform beyond expectations in education, sport and business.

Her most recent work has mainly been around parents’ engagement in their children’s learning, particularly as a means of school improvement. The recent DFE literature review of Best Practice In Parental Engagement , on which she is first author, takes an overview of the field and suggests practical ways forward for schools.

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It would seem obvious – axiomatic, even – that relationships between homes and schools (or more accurately, between families and school staff, as people, not buildings, have relationships), are of primary importance for children’s learning.

And yet, in many schools (and homes), such relationships don’t appear to be a priority.

As I have argued elsewhere, this represents a missed opportunity. And more than that: when we neglect this obvious link, we fail to support young people as well as they should be supported.

These relationships have a simple starting point: a desire to do the best for the chid or young person involved.  This is what the vast majority of parents want, and this desire is shared by the vast majority of those who work in schools.

Why, then, when the starting points are so similar, are school-home relationships so often difficult to establish and maintain? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

The relationship between each family and school is, of course, unique.  But we do have some general ideas about what can get in the way.  One of the major factors is a lack of trust between parents and school staff.  Many parents report that they find it difficult to trust teachers because of their own experiences of education – experiences which have not laid a solid foundation for future trust.

Trust takes time to form, but parents and school staff face increasingly busy life styles.  This is particularly the case once young people move to secondary school: the familiar, even cosy relationship which may have been built up at primary schools gives way to the much larger, bewildering and even alien environment of a secondary school.  Children suddenly have a number of teachers – many relationships need to replace just one or two.

What I’m suggesting is a move from having parents “help schools” to a recognition of a more equal partnership, where everyone “helps” the child or young person.

Just as in other interpersonal interactions, perhaps the greatest barrier here to the building of trust – and therefore good relationships – is simply a lack of mutual understanding.  School staff and parents often come from and continue to live in different communities.  They may not share common experiences or even a common language.  One of the most important steps here is for schools to find out about the parents and families of their pupils – what they want, what they need, what they hope for their children, and, most importantly, how the school can work with families to achieve those aims.

I’ve phrased that last sentence quite deliberately: “show schools can work with families”. In much – most? – of the literature, you’ll find it the other way around – how families can help schools. What I’m suggesting is a move from having parents “help schools” to a recognition of a more equal partnership, where everyone “helps” the child or young person.

In terms of children’s learning, even children’s education, schools are latecomers to the party.  Parents and families have been driving that journey since the child was born.  Yes, schools – school staff – have particular areas of expertise around certain types of learning, but if we can move to a situation where that expertise is seen as a (vital) part of children’s learning, rather than the totality, we will have done much to solve the issues around school-home relationships.

Because it all goes back to that first point, on which everyone is agreed – wanting the best for the child.  Parents and school staff may not always agree on how that works out or what it looks like, but the foundation is still there, if it is seen as a joint exercise.

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As a part of the drive to understand school-home relationships better, we’re running a short questionnaire for parents, looking at how schools communicate with parents.  Please take a few minutes to fill in the survey, here.

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Find out more:

Review of Best Practice in Parental Engagement

Do Parents Know They Matter? (Book)

Do Parents Know They Matter? (Report)

Helping Families Support Children’s Success at School

Rethinking Engagement (in Growing Engagement)

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