Can schools really involve parents in planning?

Written by Tom Freeman on 11 April 2018 in Feature

In its third year, the Partnership Schools Programme is finding old nuts tough to crack

John Swinney visits Maisondieu Primary School's PSS programme - SPTC

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The Scottish Parent Teacher Council has rebranded itself as Connect, a name reflecting the work done in the organisation’s flagship project, Partnership Schools Scotland (PSS), which has run since the 2015/16 school year.

Based on a model developed at John Hopkins University in the US, partnership schools see parents directly involved in the forward planning at individual schools with support from Connect and Skills Development Scotland.

Ruthanna Chalmers, headteacher at Maisondieu Primary School in Brechin, said the scheme has made a “tangible difference to pupil’s achievement and attainment” at the school.

“We are currently in our third year in the PSS programme and our school community is benefiting in many ways,” she said.

“The growing sense of partnership between school staff and families is for us the most important aspect as we grow in understanding of each other, and children in turn benefit from a joint approach.”

However, the recent ‘year two’ report by Connect hints at some frustrations with the progress of the scheme, which was backed up with 30 years of evidence from the US model and which Education Secretary John Swinney has described as “an excellent model for schools to work better with parents and families”.

Parental involvement, according to Connect, is one of the most important factors in securing positive outcomes for young people, and so feeds into government priorities such as the attainment gap and the broad curricular aims of CfE.

Indeed, in its submission to Holyrood’s Education Committee’s investigation of the attainment gap, Connect challenged the notion of the ‘poverty of aspiration’.

“Parents universally want the best for their children, and their ambition is that their children do better than they did,” it said.

“The challenge for many parents is to see how they can influence that outcome.”

Initially, the Partnership Schools programme was trialled at 12 schools in three local authority areas: Angus, Edinburgh and Glasgow. In its second year a further 16 schools were added to include Falkirk and West Lothian.

In its third year, only a handful have joined so far, with talks ongoing to include schools in Fife and Stirling.

Holyrood spoke to Connect’s chief executive Eileen Prior to find out why the scheme appears to be slowing its momentum.

“We decided quality rather than quantity was the key, because of the changes happening offstage and are still going on, we were spending so much of our time working with the schools than we had anticipated,” she said.

The offstage happenings Prior is referring to is of course a reform agenda which is seeing no signs of slowing down at the same time as “major cuts”.

But, she says, the process has also been “a massive learning curve” when staff turnover and the way the school year is broken up has made it difficult to build momentum.

Prior also points out the evidence from the American model shows the work to include parents reaps long term benefits which will be difficult to measure in the short term.

“Politicians want a quick fix,” she says.

“Actually there’s no such thing in this, partly because we’re having to dismantle some of the existing thought processes around parents and schools, disrupt some of the established thinking about what role parents have and so on.”

This is why Prior uses the term parental involvement rather than parental engagement, which traditionally has focused on only parent’s nights and events organised by a school’s parent council.

It is the parents who are not involved in those encounters that teachers want to engage, and who will be key if the attainment gap is to be tackled.

“It is not poverty per se that creates the attainment gap, it is the impact of that poverty on family life, on the ability and time to create and do as well as the dearth, very often, of communication between home and school.”

The Partnership Schools approach sees encouragement of collaborative work which links family life and curricular activities so that they both support learning. It is “absolutely not homework” Prior says.

These activities will be linked to mutually agreed goals in the school’s improvement plan.

But there have been head teachers who have been reluctant to change their ways, Prior admits, especially in the secondary sector where the cultural shift to the broad curriculum hasn’t quite been felt and a focus on getting kids into university is still key.

“They are under scrutiny to perform and a major measure of performance is exam passes, so they’re caught there aren’t they?

“The secondary system is really thirled to the way we’ve done it forever. What they’ve done is rebranded what they’ve always done.”

But the “negative mindset” is not restricted to teachers, she adds, when some parent councils have said that poverty and attainment is nothing to do with them.

“It’s about what kind of society we want and how we want our young people to understand and treat each other. It’s not just about exam passes. It has to be a much bigger picture,” says Prior.

“It really saddens me that so many schools have that experience, that so many parents see the narrative as getting them through their exams.”

It is hoped more schools will sign up to be part of the Partnership Schools project to build a momentum.

Prior believes it will come from head teachers seeking positive change. “It’s no small thing to change the culture within a school, but we’re big and brave and keep going at it. You know I think there are sufficient professionals out there who want to change it.”

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