March 2014


  • The state of independence
    Autonomy isn’t a new concept for schools and colleges but its success in the long-term depends on everyone being honest about what it means and costs, as well as the provision of safeguards for schools and colleges that get into difficulty, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Be prepared
    Leora Cruddas suggests some key activities for schools and colleges to undertake ahead of changes to the curriculum, assessment and qualifications. More
  • Premium: Make it pay
    The Pupil Premium gives us a huge opportunity to change for the better the lives of poor and disadvantaged young people, says John Dunford. We need to exploit it to the full. More
  • A head for heights?
    The profession needs more outstanding heads but they won’t materialise unless we ensure that teachers can access top-quality development from the moment that they set foot on the career ladder, argues Ian Bauckham. It is up to leaders to seize the initiative. More
  • Meaningful dialogue
    Better parent-school relationships can have a profound impact on pupil attainment, particularly for those in disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, says Professor Sonia Blandford. More
  • Widening the leadership horizon
    Today’s young people are the leaders of tomorrow. We need to help them understand the world beyond theirs and how their lives and roles overlap with other communities, or tensions will continue to arise when cultures collide, says Ken Swan. More
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Better parent-school relationships can have a profound impact on pupil attainment, particularly for those in disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, says Professor Sonia Blandford.

Meaningful dialogue

Hampstead School is a 1,250-pupil comprehensive in north London but the school’s name can create misconceptions about its context, says deputy headteacher Heather Daulphin.

“We’re actually in Cricklewood and sit on the cusp of some really well-to-do areas and some really vulnerable areas,” she says. “Our particular challenge is to meet the needs of such a diverse community.”

The attainment of children in vulnerable groups, including minority ethnic groups and children with special educational needs, is a key concern for the school. Barriers for these pupils include economic background, language, family make-up (some are looked-after children) and, in some cases, parents’ mistrust of schools.

Their parental engagement strategy uses a programme we have developed at education charity Achievement for All 3As and includes work to promote leadership, teaching and learning and widening opportunities for the target pupils.

A central element is a series of focused, managed discussions between teacher, parent and pupil known as the structured conversation in which the parent/carer has the chance to talk about their concerns and discuss with the teacher strategies for improving support at home. Teachers learn how to recap a conversation, summarise complex or convoluted points that both sides understand, and set targets that parent, teacher and pupil sign up to and which are reviewed at a later meeting.

It means teachers taking time out of the classroom but in many cases the cost of cover can be covered by the Pupil Premium.

At Hampstead, two structured conversations are held with parents and carers of the targeted children during the year with a third, whole school review to look at whether targets have been achieved. Parents of around 40 children in each year group are invited to take part.

“We’ve had good feedback,” Heather says. “Parents say that they now feel that their child’s needs are being addressed. Those children are much more involved in school life and they know more about what is expected of them in their learning.

“I can’t create a causal link between structured conversations and children’s attainment but it is a vital part of the whole package,” she adds. “You can’t get results for these children if you don’t have parents on board.”

Engaging parents and carers more deeply in their children’s school lives and work is central to our aim at Achievement for All to help schools to improve the attainment of vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils. More than 1,900 schools of all phases are now working with our programme, including around 320 secondaries.

Mark Rutherford School, a 1,250-pupil secondary in Bedford, has developed an innovative approach to data collection and interpretation as part of its Achievement for All work.

The school uses a system called ‘I factor’ – the ‘I’ stands for ‘intervention’ – to identify the vulnerability of all students. The more barriers a student has the greater their ‘I factor’. Information on every student is collected in spreadsheets which indicate which students have an I factor rating and student achievement is tracked across the school.

Departments use this information to decide how these students should be supported. Students with special educational needs, attendance below 85 per cent and a low average point score would be considered I factor 3, for example.

“Using this approach we are able to identify the potential vulnerabilities of students and intervene early,” says Kathie Hughes, deputy head at Mark Rutherford and the Achievement for All school champion.

A cohort of students with three I factors was identified as needing extra support through the structured conversation programme. Each student was assigned a key teacher to support their needs and the teacher also holds regular structured conversations with parents or carers.

“The conversations have allowed us to learn more about a young person and the challenges they might face at home,” says Kathie. “For example, with one family we discovered that there had been a family bereavement and although counselling had been arranged for them they were unable to make the meetings. We worked with other agencies and paid for taxis to make that happen. What happens in the home often has a profound impact on a student’s work at school.”

Progress of the school’s Year 9 and Year 10 students targeted for support as part of the Achievement for All programme has been good and they have achieved significantly higher average point scores in reading, writing and maths.

At the Achievement for All annual conference in November, parental engagement expert Charles Desforges emphasised that parental engagement isn’t about “getting on with parents”.

“If that’s all it’s about then it won’t benefit the pupils,” he said.

He pointed to research comparing the effect of parents and school on progress (See page three of the research online here

It showed that at age seven, 29 per cent of pupil achievement can be accounted for by parental support. This compared to a five per cent impact from schooling. At 11, the difference between the impact of parents and school is 27 per cent. The importance parental support plays in children’s progress diminishes over time but it still has an impact on pupils on the cusp of sixth form. By that time, parental support makes a 14 per cent contribution compared to 51 per cent for school. But it’s not just parents of struggling pupils. Parent-school links often fail to meet expectations with a broad cross-section of parents and carers.

Meanwhile, a survey we carried out with Ipsos Mori showed that five out of ten parents of a child aged five to 18 in school said their school only called them when their child had done something wrong. Yet three out of five said that they would do more to support their youngster if they had more time or guidance on practical ways to help their child’s learning.

We have a wealth of evidence from schools around England that structured conversations work, including surveys showing a 17 per cent improvement in parent and carer engagement with teachers and in children’s learning.

In many schools, in fact, the approach has been so successful that they have rolled out the approach for all parents.

  • Professor Sonia Blandford is founder and chief executive of Achievement for All 3As. The charity has launched a training resource available online or face-to-face to help schools, LAs and CCGs prepare for the September 2014 introduction of the Education Health and Care Plan and Code of Practice

Parent-teacher meetings can be a useful building block for improved parent and carer engagement. Here are some quick tips from Achievement for All 3As that will help make those meetings with parents more productive.

1 Preparation matters Gather in the most recent and relevant data. Be aware of good progress and be ready to praise. Be aware of slow progress and be ready to agree targets to accelerate progress, if appropriate. Gather reflections from colleagues.

2 Make them welcome Make sure that they receive a warm welcome and provide refreshments.

3 Cut the jargon Avoid using educational jargon and over-formal language which may create a barrier between you and the parents. Avoid asking too many questions – give the parents an opportunity to talk.

4 Put the child first Establish whether there are any barriers to progress. Explore and agree the activities which will increase the pupil’s motivation and fulfilment.

5 Plan for action Agree deadlines by which the pupil’s targets will be fulfilled. Ensure everyone is clear as to what they will need to do and how they will do it. Offer parents support where necessary.