January 2011


  • A return to austerity?
    The ultimate impact on the education system of the Coalition’s reforms won’t be clear for some years, but there are some immediate financial implications which schools and colleges need to grasp, says Sam Ellis. More
  • Golden opportunities
    One of the UK’s Olympic greats is ensuring the 2012 legacy for young people will consist of more than stadia and facilities in London. David Hemery talks to John Holt about his challenge to capture young hearts and minds by providing the ultimate ‘win-learn situation’. More
  • Collective communication
    The death of a student amid sectarian violence brought headteachers in Ballymena together in 2006. They have gone on to create a formal learning community arrangement across the curriculum as well as the community, says Frank Cassidy. More
  • Make a meal of it
    They were initially reluctant but now parents are flocking to The Ridgeway School’s cooking workshops to spend quality time with their children. For the school, meanwhile, it is one step on the road to narrowing the inequalities gap, explains Rosemary Cairns. More
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They were initially reluctant but now parents are flocking to The Ridgeway School’s cooking workshops to spend quality time with their children. For the school, meanwhile, it is one step on the road to narrowing the inequalities gap, explains Rosemary Cairns.

Make a meal of it

I would not have envisaged two years ago that a chance conversation with a colleague when discussing a proposal for a project supporting pupils on free school meals (FSM) would result in a shift in the long-term strategy for our school.

The Ridgeway School is a large comprehensive serving the Wiltshire town of Wroughton and surrounding villages. It has around 1,400 students aged 11-18, drawn from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds, though most are more advantaged.

In June 2009 I and my colleague Heather Siebenaller, advanced skills teacher for citizenship, were applying to the National College for funding under the college’s Narrowing the Gap initiative, which supported schools with long-term initiatives aimed broadly at reducing inequalities.

Our project focused on students who are entitled to FSM, as this group encompassed the full spectrum of needs and backgrounds in the school. Many of them do well but need help to unlock their potential.

We also wanted to link this with our Healthy Schools work which has been highly regarded for many years. In 2008 Ofsted gave the school a grade 1 for personal development and wellbeing (and an outstanding rating overall), noting that “the school’s impressive range of food initiatives contributes to students’ enjoyment and their healthy lifestyles.”

Hard to reach

While we wanted to be creative in working with FSM students, we also wanted to engage their parents as we know, from research and our own experience, that they have a key role to play in raising standards.

As a school we realised that we needed to work hard in order to engage specific parent groups, particularly those parents who are hard to reach. Some felt intimidated just coming into the building, for example, for a vast range of reasons.

But we felt that if we did all we could to encourage parents and get them in with their children to do some fun and interesting things, this would snowball into other areas.

Initially we sent out questionnaires to students, staff and parents featuring suggestions for various practical activities and ways for parents to be involved in the school’s efforts to promote a healthy lifestyle and healthy eating. As an incentive, we offered the chance to win cinema tickets for all those who returned the form in time.

We had a 55 per cent return rate and some of the responses were very positive. However, most parents who responded, especially single parents, saw the main limitation to being involved as the demand on their time, money and the restriction of work commitments.

And both parents and staff felt that parental engagement was easier at primary school than secondary school.

Parents did indicate that they would be interested in a practical approach where they could have time with their child and in talking to the FSM students, it was remarkably clear that they were keen for their parents to take an interest in them. We needed to ensure that what we were going to put time and effort into really was going to help address the issues.

Practical cooking

We launched the initiative though the Great British Breakfast week in January 2010 and the Swindon hockey team, Wild Cats, came for the breakfast launch.

Our first activity was food workshops – practical cooking sessions for parents and their children. They had been regarded sceptically by the majority of people that we contacted and we struggled to attract people initially but they have since taken off quite dramatically.

The sessions were run by us and Ann, the school’s lead midday supervisor. Ingredients for two dishes were prepared for each family unit together with easy-to-read recipe cards. During the course of an hour and a half, some splendid food was produced at no cost to the attendees.

In addition, they went home with a long-life carrier bag containing ingredients for a simple pasta dish which could easily be prepared at home. The condition for the next workshop was that the bag was returned so we could repeat the experiment.

Ann tirelessly carried out the follow-up interviews and phone calls. Through her invaluable work we began to understand what would encourage these parents to come into school and what barriers we needed to overcome.

For the second cooking session, parents were invited in by non-teaching staff and contacted by mobile phone to make it all seem less formal.

By the third session, parents were requesting the events and we had some fathers attending for the first time.

We now have a waiting list of parents wanting to come for “quality time with my kids”, as one originally reluctant attendee put it.

Other feedback has been even more telling. One parent, who could not read, said that she had understood how to make the dishes and can now make them at home because she can remember the method and, if necessary, her daughter can read from the recipe cards the “bits she forgets”.

It had been a rather female-dominated bunch but fathers now come with their children and we are pleased to see a better gender balance. One who was coping with three children, a terminally sick wife and little income told us that it had been “his lifeline”.

Other examples of using vegetables and fruits in season have been very encouraging.

Just as importantly, many more of the parents who have been involved in the workshops are attending parents’ consultations and other school events. Suggestions are being encouraged from this group as to how they might wish to be involved in their child’s schooling still further.

  • Rosemary Cairns is Advanced Skills Teacher (Initial Teacher Training) at The Ridgeway School in Wiltshire.

Recipe for success

  • Continue to make parental engagement a priority in school and work towards embedding this approach into school improvement policies, so parents are seen as an integral part of supporting students’ wellbeing.
  • Develop supportive ways to involve parents of pupils who receive free school meals or other vulnerable groups so they feel comfortable if consulted or contacted by the school. Using non-teaching staff for an initial conversation can reduce the sense of ‘threat’ which senior staff especially may engender. Find out exactly what expertise all staff in school may be able to offer.
  • A flexible approach may be required as shift work, child care and geography were limiting factors for some parents in our wide catchment area. Consider altering the timing of events in order to accommodate parents at times convenient for them.
  • Consider introducing a family event to promote a healthy lifestyle with activities arranged in the leisure centre followed by providing a meal or similar in the school canteen.
  • Extend any cooking club to parents so they can have hands-on food experience.

Make a meal of it