September 2013


  • The purpose of education
    Everyone has an opinion about what our schools and colleges should be striving to achieve and how they should go about it. For the sake of young people, it’s time to build a consensus. More
  • Inside knowledge
    Understanding leadership styles is not just beneficial for senior leaders, says John Bennett. It can be helpful for teachers early in their careers too, in order to help them realise their full potential. More
  • In the driving seat
    As chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart has been one of Michael Gove’s fiercest critics, despite being a fellow Tory. He talks to Liz Lightfoot about system reform, the latest curriculum controversy and why he’s backing ASCL’s Great Education Debate. More
  • Time to get grounded
    Schools can do even more with parent power if they harness it to improve teaching and learning in a real and credible way, says Jim Fuller. More
  • A wider vision
    A new Recommended Code of Governance for Schools, devised by the Wellcome Trust and education bodies, aims to fill the gaps in governors’ understanding of their strategic role. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
Bookmark and Share

Schools can do even more with parent power if they harness it to improve teaching and learning in a real and credible way, says Jim Fuller.

Time to get grounded

You have a school council. Ofsted asks you about it. It helps you to interview teachers and it makes a real impact on developments in school. You have begun to train your governors in using data because Ofsted is looking for it; probably your board of governors is now holding you to account more effectively. There’s a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) group for local business and possibly representatives of your local faiths have an input into school.

Are you missing a vital group? What about parents?

They are behind the bar at Parent Teacher Association (PTA) events and on the board of governors. You meet a lot at parents’ evenings. You hope that you don’t run into them in the pub when you have had a few. If you have a tutor group for a while you may meet these parents once or twice a year for a number of years and forge real links. As a school leader you also meet your fair share of angry parents and winning over a hard parent or encouraging a reluctant one to take more of an interest in his or her child can feel like a triumph. But is a lot of this too reactive?

The points above are not a reflection of practice at all schools and many have great ways of using parents. The parent governor is a powerful agent of change and the PTA makes a massive impact on school funding and esprit de corps. But is there always a forum for parents to really contribute to what matters in schools – teaching and learning?

For nearly two years, St Birinus School, Didcot, has had a Parents’ Teaching and Learning Group (PTLG). We asked ourselves some of the questions above and made an honest, if challenging, assessment that we were not tapping into this potential and were losing out because of it. Over these two years we have been more and more impressed by the impact of using these most critical and friendly of critical friends.

Many of our vital decisions have been taken in conjunction with the school council and the PTLG. The level of input varies but all PTLG meetings finish with concrete action points. For example, they have:

  • suggested better ways of marketing to potential sixth-formers
  • approved our new Learning for Life Curriculum and made suggestions about what to include
  • drafted ICT entitlements for parents and students
  • reviewed the school uniform and given the senior leadership team (SLT) the go-ahead to change it
  • monitored homework delivery and suggested improvements
  • helped a colleague shape his Master’s dissertation in order to make his research questions more ‘parent friendly’

The group was formed with a simple invite in the school newsletter and from the beginning we have had a decent number involved. Initially it was built to a convenient teacher timetable but we found that parents needed to get home from their jobs, look after their children, feed them, nag them about doing their homework and then, finally, come back out to school, so the meeting soon got shifted to a 7pm start time.

Ground rules

The first meeting was a scene-setter; we discussed the purpose of the group and set up some ground rules. These were mostly common sense about not mentioning names, not becoming too anecdotal about our own children and trying to be constructively critical, rather than just critical. Some meetings have been about informing parents (“What exactly is AfL?”) but most have been concerned with genuinely seeking input and advice from parents.

Some highlights of the group in action include a very lively meeting where parents discussed what they would prefer to see in terms of our recording and reporting. Parents had very strong opinions about levels of personalisation, the comprehensibility of National Curriculum (NC) levels and the relevance of baseline data. They particularly wanted colour-coded, live data with better accuracy.

This meeting was probably one of the hardest for teaching colleagues who were present because there was some clear dissatisfaction with our current practice. It must be said that teachers have never queried or complained about the PTLG. It is likely that this is because the group is presented as a straightforward extension of using pupil voice.

Early on, the PTLG wanted to talk about homework and kept a diary of homework set for their children as preparation for a lively discussion about the amount set. A follow-up meeting on the same theme decided that the school had improved in this area. We have also discussed the new Learning to Learn Curriculum and the PTLG members have made suggestions to the head of sixth form about how to make the post-16 curriculum more inclusive. The group also worked on our ’Outstanding at St Birinus’ document to help us define what they thought made ‘an outstanding lesson’.

Perhaps most importantly the PTLG has been deeply involved in our current ICT project. Local consultants 3e were appointed to investigate our use of ICT and the effectiveness of our infrastructure. What they found led us to take on a massive procurement project in which the PTLG has played a vital part, including contributing to the tender bid by different companies. We chose Civica as our long-term ICT partner to replace our network and to manage our ICT service, in part for the innovative teaching and learning element of their proposal, and PTLG was key in helping us to make the final decision.

More publicity

The group has certainly been successful and it has made a real impact. However, there are plenty of ways that we are trying to improve things. We need a few more regular members and it is also a fairly unrepresentative group as it doesn’t include ‘hard to reach’ parents; the one dad who attends probably feels a bit outnumbered. Over the next year we are going to do more publicity about the PTLG and are going to experiment with different venues.

Engaging with parents in this way generates meaningful discussion, enables them to gain more knowledge about how the school runs and enables them to really make an impact. Very importantly, it means that when decisions are announced to parents and teachers they have the credibility added by genuine input from this key stakeholder group.

What parents think...

Fiona Tankard
I think it’s great that the school is keen to consult with parents and use their ideas and opinions to inform some policies. It’s also a good way for parents to ask for information on particular areas and to channel issues and feedback without making it too personal.

Maura Launchbury
I have valued and enjoyed the group because it gave me a deeper insight into the challenges that the teachers face every day in dealing with the wide range of abilities of the pupils in their care. I have also been impressed at how committed the staff are to delivering the best.

Elaine Huelin
I value the role of the PTLG because it encompasses what learning for a child is all about. We are able to offer ideas and opinions freely and that insight is shared with the school. I believe that the work of this group with the help of teachers has improved learning outcomes for the better. There have clearly been improvements already because of the group in terms of child/parent/teacher reporting and many other things, too.

Ada Harwood
During its first year, we have covered many topics from homework and marking to equipment, uniform, sixth-form transition and special education needs [SEN]. The meetings are friendly and informal. They provide a good platform for the school to sound out new ideas and to give parents a voice that can shape policies for the better.

  • Jim Fuller is deputy headteacher, teaching and learning, at St Birinus School, Didcot.