Guest blog: Parental engagement - keep your plans simple, clear and focused

Chris Woodcock, Head of School at Durrington High School -- part of the EEF's Research Schools Network -- introduces our latest guidance report, 'Working with Parents to Support Children's Learning', and explains how schools can use it to boost parental engagement...

Anyone working, or who has worked, in a school will know that parent/carer engagement is one of those amorphous things that is very difficult to get a clear and consistent grip on. With schools working with students of differing age groups, in such a wide variety of contexts, and perhaps most importantly in such a diverse range of community settings, it is safe to say that there is (as yet) no silver bullet solution.

So, if it’s that hard to do, why bother?

The question is why, then, are schools and school leaders so intent of engaging with parents/carers of the children they teach? Perhaps the most common reason schools and those who work in them cite are that they feel that, by engaging with parents/carers, children will be better supported (academically and possibly socially / emotionally / behaviourally) and the effect of this support is increased attendance and greater rates of academic progress for both the individual and the school.

There is a widely accepted feeling that parents who come to school events / meetings, communicate effectively with the school, and support their child with out-of-school learning are regarded as a positive influence on their child’s progress / attainment. Whereas those parents who actively or passively display the opposites of these “valued characteristics” are often blamed for detrimentally impacting on their child’s future. Whatever the truth is, there are exceptions!

Now comes the tricky bit: what we can do in our schools to create positive change to the existing status quo?

As a profession, we are perhaps in a position now of being more evidence informed than ever before. The new EEF guidance report goes a long way towards using this extensive evidence base to help framing what approaches / strategies are likely to have the greatest impact in improving parent / carer engagement.

A further strength of the guidance is that it is explicit in places about not just what could work, but also what strategies are unlikely to demonstrate the gains we desire. Beyond this, it contextualises strategies and approaches into age / stage groups; again, a useful way to support school leaders.

One of the most interesting aspects of the guidance (which is especially pertinent given the unprecedented stains on school budgets, cuts to the workforce, etc) is that the evidence suggests that making relatively small, low-cost and simple changes to how we as organisations communicate will potentially offer significant gains in parental engagement / support. 

Working with Parents to Support Children’s Learning

Four recommendations on working with parents to support their child’s learning

Working with Parents to Support Children’s Learning Download PDF get_app

These are ideals that I am sure all schools are interested in, not just in a classroom sense, but also so they really can support and achieve the best possible progress for each child. Key to the reshaping of communications are the ideas of:

  1. Making things personal (specific to them/their child… use their names!)
  2. Making things easy to engage with (one-click response on text messages)
  3. Creating and sharing the social norm thus indirectly suggesting they / their child will be missing out by not acting
  4. The use of “nudging” language

These ideas, I believe, are well within the capability of any school to understand and implement. However, a caveat here (as the report notes) is that they still require careful planning for and implementation.

A word of warning

At this point it is pertinent (after you have stopped reading and already been distracted by ideas of how / what you could / should change) to mention the necessity, before deciding on or taking any action, to critically review the current picture in your school / setting.

Without establishing a clear and understood “baseline” (the easiest way to do this is using data you already have) there is a real risk that a new initiative / change will be viewed by those expected to implement them as another “bolt on” or “fad” and thus be added to the bottom of long to-do lists, or implemented but with no real plan for reviewing whether they work or not.

What shouldn’t be ruled out at this stage is that there are many other approaches, other than those suggested / discussed in the report, that contextually have had significant success. There are, too, approaches from other spheres outside of education that have the potential to have a positive impact; some of which are even referenced in the report, which is great to see.

Conclusion

The final advice, again very clearly summarised in the report, is to keep any plans simple, clear and focused. Whatever you choose to do, for the best chance of it working it has to have high fidelity (understood by those doing it) and be integrated into day-to-date processes / practice. Anything other than this is likely to be seen as a bolt on by those involved and potentially fail at the first hurdle!