Engaging parents to raise achievement

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                   Engaging parents to raise achievement

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How appropriate that when we need to talk about the home school

relationship, we come to the home of great football. Where some of the finest

young talent is being nurtured to achieve future success.

Like any good parent, Arsene Wenger is fully supportive of his young charges.

But I hope this morning he is counselling them to remember that it doesn’t

matter how beautifully you play, you’ve still got to get the results.

We’ve come a long way from the Philip Larkin approach to parenting. I’m

paraphrasing his famous poem when I say that that he - less than politely -

assumed that parents were good for nothing but passing on their numerous

flaws and guaranteeing their children years on the counsellor’s couch.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Research consistently shows that

parents have the greatest influence over their child’s achievement - more than

any other factor – including gender, ethnicity or class.

An active, enthusiastic parent can help their child overcome disadvantage and

maximise the benefits of education – breaking the links between a child’s past

and their prospects.

Reading to your child, helping them struggle with their sums, embarrassing

yourself at sports day (though probably not at the school disco) – these are

the things that make a difference, not how many new xbox games you can

buy them.

Parents can offer encouragement and are the most influential role models. If

children feel that their parents value education, and link it with enjoyment at

home, they are more likely to try hard and do well.

Today’s parents want to be more involved that ever before. The majority

believe that they share responsibility with the school for their child’s


In a recent survey, almost three quarters said that they wanted even more


And so knowing all this, we need to act on it.

There is a lot of hand-wringing in government about how to narrow the

attainment gaps around class, gender and ethnicity.

But until recently, the contribution of parents has been an untapped goldmine.

We can’t continue to squander one of the most powerful latent forces

available to us.

You wouldn’t build a house, or undertake brain surgery, without consulting an


Well, parents are the experts on their children, and educating children is the

most important task that we as a society undertake.

We have to get them more involved if we are to make education more


We have already begun responding by giving parents a stronger stake and

louder voice within the system.

Our objective is to ensure that parents have a genuine choice, between

equally good, but different schools, so they can choose the education that is

right for their child.

We’ve introduced choice advisors to help some parents tiptoe through the

complex minefield of school admissions.

And we have changed the admissions system itself, so that it is clear and fair

to all – reinforcing this with the new admissions code.

Greater choice is a powerful incentive for all schools to raise their game.

Coasting schools can no longer feel complacent. Instead, all schools should

be striving for continual improvement in order to attract parents.

To do that effectively, schools need greater freedom. They need space to

reflect and to act – to come up with the creative ideas which will work for their


We in government are – I hope - loosening the iron grip of the past so that

schools have the breathing space that they need.

But with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. To reach out to the

local community and respond to their needs more systematically than ever


This is a new form of local accountability which we believe will be far more

effective than schools constantly worrying about Whitehall.

But this is not the only way to build local accountability. We now need to build

new bridges between schools and families.

While parents often have a strong connection with their child’s primary school,

this often falls by the wayside once the child reaches secondary school.

The transition to secondary school can be a tricky time for children, but it’s no

less momentous for parents.

From a personal relationship with one familiar face in a comfortable

environment, parents are suddenly confronted by a bewildering whirlwind of

different requirements, subjects and teachers.

The stereotypical response from parents falls into two distinctive categories.

First there’s the caricature of the pushy parent, armed with shrill voice and

sharp elbows.

Teachers cower behind cupboards when they see this parent coming, rolling

their eyes at yet another apparently frivolous worry.

Then there’s the other extreme – the silent parent.

They are a shadowy presence hovering in the background whose contact with

the school is restricted to signing consent forms for school trips.

It’s less easy to paint a vivid picture of these parents because they are less

visible, less noticeable. But they are no less interested. They are simply

more wary.

They may not have enjoyed their own school years. They may feel they lack

the skills to help out with homework and the confidence to express their

worries to teachers.

Most parents appear somewhere on a scale between the two extremes - and

we must respond accordingly.

The first parent often simply needs better quality, more frequent information,

and strategies to help them get involved in a constructive way.

The second is perhaps more difficult. Even screwing up the courage to get in

through the school gates can be a challenge.

So it’s a question of first building up trust - making sure that school is a

welcoming not a threatening place.

Our task – and I mean both government and schools - is to ensure that all

parents have the information and support they need to become active and

constructive participants in their child’s learning.

In this way, parents and teachers can build a powerful alliance in pursuit of

their shared aim – the very best for their children.

As Beauchamp College – which I was privileged to visit recently and who are

also here today – put it, “two heads are better than one”.

My two examples are, of course, exaggeration but they do demonstrate that

parents – just like their children – are individuals, needing different things at

different times.

In fact, of course, every family is unique – some with a constellation of

relatives, others getting by on their own.

Like the schools in this project, the best schools know modern families aren’t

Janet in the kitchen and John in the office, and they respond appropriately.

They are making a concerted effort to involve fathers as well as mothers.

They recognise that mothers too have work commitments and won’t

necessarily be able to attend meetings straight after school. They think about

the extended family too, bringing in grandparents and other relations.

Many schools now carry out regular, professionally validated surveys of

parents’ views about their child’s experience at school.

By responding to those concerns, schools build a positive relationship with

parents from all backgrounds who can see their views are listened to,

respected and acted upon.

But what is the next stage? Beyond the quantitative surveys, how do we build

a personal relationship between parents and schools alongside personalised

learning within schools?

You are helping to answer some of the most important questions. How can

we best help parents to help their children learn? How can we ensure that

they are well-informed but not overwhelmed? How can schools be flexible

and responsive to their needs without making unmanageable demands of


And as we start to share your pioneering experience, thousands of families

across hundreds of schools will reap the benefits.

It’s really exciting to think that the ideas you come up with could become the

next big thing in the education world.

They don’t all have to be revolutionary. One small step for a school could

mean one giant leap in a child’s progress.

One approach that I know is already working extremely well for many of you is

thinking about how technology can power a more direct and personal

relationship between a parent and school.

I’m sure all the parents and teachers here will be familiar with the well-

documented yet mysterious phenomenon of letters which somehow never

make it home.

When I visited Beauchamp, I saw at first-hand how they were overcoming this

problem by sending out weekly emails to the parents that would most benefit.

In fact, technology can be used to support increased engagement – and

consequently, improved achievement – in a whole variety of ways.

Because while not every parent has the time for a two hour conference many

will have five minutes to log on at lunchtime and check on how their child is


So Sale Grammar School doesn’t just give parents raw assessment data but

helps them understand how they can use it to help their child progress.

Millthorpe School are producing podcasts of mini lessons and revision so that

parents and children can learn together at home.

Of course, technology has to be used sensitively. It has the potential to

benefit the more affluent and articulate parents and exclude those who don’t

have access.

So the work of schools like Compton in Barnet who offer parents their facilities

and training to access them is really important in setting an example of

inclusive practice. I was delighted by the welcome I got from the Compton

students this morning, and was also very impressed with their photographic


Finally, I want to say that of course, support for parents isn’t limited to getting

them more involved in education.

Like every parent, I learned the hard way that children don’t arrive with

instruction manuals.

Being a parent doesn’t come magically or naturally.

Just as you’ve learned how to deal with a young child, before you know it,

they are a teenager with a whole new set of problems. My son is 16, and

taking his GCSEs this year – a very different set of challenges to those we

faced a few short years ago.

Every day, in every home, parents are grappling with modern dilemmas –

from healthy eating to keeping children safe on the internet – as well as the

traditional concerns of any responsible parent.

And of course, parents are people too. Children might shudder in horror at

the suggestion, but parents do have real lives of their own, with concerns

beyond their children.

Some might want to change career, some might be taking their first tentative

steps back into employment, others might be feeling unsure or isolated.

We have all long been familiar with the concept that every child matters – but

of course, every parent matters too.

Naturally, parents don’t want interference from me and my grey suited

government colleagues – not when they have the vastly more attractive Jo

Frost and Tania Byron to turn to for parenting advice.

But they do sometimes want help and support from reliable sources. Our task

is to ensure this support is clear, comprehensive and easily accessible.

From children’s centres to extended schools, we are building a network of

welcoming places which benefit parents as well as children.

Whether it’s advice about local childcare, help to develop their IT skills, or just

to find someone who is going through the same things as they are – children’s

centres and extended schools are fast becoming the place to be.

Some of you may also be familiar with parent support advisors. These are

now doing invaluable work in more than 600 schools around the country.

Their prime focus is to identify those parents who aren’t engaging and support

them to do so. At a recent conference, one parent support advisor described

this as “giving parents a straight run, not a hurdle race”.

They are helping out with housing difficulties, with sibling disputes, with adult

literacy – all things which build parent confidence while breaking down

barriers to greater involvement.

Many of you here today are working on similar improvements to your pastoral

support. Like Hope Valley College in Derbyshire who are using mentors to

offer a more personalised service to parents.

Or Great Sankey High School in Warrington who have devised a parent

education programme by asking parents what they really want help with – so

they can support their teenagers without alienating or smothering them. It’s

helping parents to feel that they are back in control again. And memorably,

it’s called “I’m a parent, get me out of here”. Who can’t relate to that?

But we know there is more to do to fill in the gaps in provision. Too many

parents still feel that they don’t have anywhere to turn. These feelings fester

until the parents feel like failures when they simply need a bit of help.

So last week, we published a document which sets out what we are currently

doing for parents of children of every age – and our plans to do more. And

your experiences will help us enormously to achieve that.

I want to conclude by thanking the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust

and the University of Warwick for leading this project.

Even more importantly, I want to congratulate every school who has been

involved in this project on their progress to date. I am extremely grateful for

the time, energy and commitment you are all putting into making a difference -

not only for the children in your own classrooms – but for children across the


I am certain that everyone here today will be inspired by what you’ve been

doing and will go away with new ideas for improving their own work. Thank

you very much.

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