Most school issues – from curriculum to uniform changes – affect parents. But often they are the last people to know, says Emma Williams
More schools are appealing to parents for donations to plug the funding gap. Headteachers and unions also have been lobbying parents to sign petitions, to join public meetings and to write directly to the government to highlight their concerns about the budget crisis.
This throws a spotlight on the way parents are considered in relation to schools and education. The finance debate frames parents as a source of income, rather than the principle stakeholder in seeing all children thrive. If schools want support from parents, they should consider matters from their perspective and take action accordingly.
Very few school issues do not also affect parents in some way, whether this is teacher recruitment and retention, shorter school days or uniform policies. Yet some schools keep parents at arms’ length. Maybe because of the pressures on schools and teachers, or maybe because of a minority of parents behaving badly. The majority of parents, however, are a force for good.
As well as contributing a reported £99 million a year through parent groups, parents volunteer more than three million hours a year across England – for example, by helping to read with children at school; maintaining buildings and grounds; completing grant funding applications; giving their time to the school parent-teacher association; and by running after-school clubs. This kind of involvement can be more valuable than financial contributions alone.
Parents are seen as sources of income
Yet schools too often announce important curriculum, school-day or behaviour-policy changes (and even bigger structural changes such as joining a multi-academy trust) to parents as a fait accompli – not only excluding them from the decision-making process, but also making them feel alienated from their child’s education. Establishing effective means of gaining parent feedback on the really important stuff would help.
If schools faced with funding challenges are seriously considering, for example, restricting the curriculum or altering school opening hours, parents must be consulted on possible options and solutions. This is even more important in MATs where decisions are made at trust level and more remotely from the individual schools.
As echoed in the recent education select committee Inquiry into MATs, school leaders should encourage and support the development of more groups that give parents a direct line into the board of governors or trustees. We understand that more than 60 per cent of schools currently have a parent-teacher association and about 20 per cent have a parent council. We would like to see every school benefiting from a parent group.
One powerful way to make a school more parent-friendly is to focus on communication. Too many parents tell us of countless emails, out-of-date websites, changes to INSET days and last-minute homework requests that put pressure on them and home life. One recently received an anonymous text message announcing that a request to take their child out of school for a day had been denied, with no details of whom to contact to discuss the matter! This may seem insignificant, but it can give the impression that school leaders do not care about the challenges facing time-poor parents who work, or have caring responsibilities, or indeed about their relationship with their children.
We urge school leaders and governors to genuinely engage parents; to look beyond their value as sources of income and instead to seek true partnership in the education of our children where real gains can be achieved. Recognising that schools, although experts in education, may not necessarily have the experience of formally engaging parents, PTA UK is looking to work with the sector to build competence and confidence in this important area.
As partners with schools, and by having a voice, parents can help to ensure our children continue to receive the education they deserve. Teachers and school leaders should welcome this with open arms.
Emma Williams is chief executive of PTA UK. For further information on PTA UK’s views about current financial pressures facing schools, click here