Research School Network: Working with parents. What would I do differently? Siobhan Campbell reflects on what she would do differently as a school leader when working to engage all parents.


Working with parents. What would I do differently?

Siobhan Campbell reflects on what she would do differently as a school leader when working to engage all parents.

by East London Research School
on the

Can of worms

As a school leader I used to dread the parent survey: it was a can of worms I did not want to open. On the whole I had good relationships with parents, but who knew what was going to wriggle out? We had enough on our plates without loading more on. We knew a lot about some of our parents, but what about the great unheard’?

I worked in a school with an engaged and enthusiastic community of parents. Our parent workshops, parent socials, and any school events were always well attended. They were very supportive of the school. Yet through the lens of disadvantage, this only added to what we know as the Matthew effect’ – to those that have there shall be more. An unintended consequence of our work with parents was that the high levels of engagement amongst some parents was intimidating to others. The strong working relationships between some parents and teachers left other parents feeling further alienated. As a result, we were unable to engage with this group of parents and build on the many strengths they offered.

The EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit has a section on working with parents. You can then click an additional tab called Closing the Disadvantage Gap’. This highlights that ‘…parental engagement strategies have the risk of increasing attainment gaps, if the parents that access parental engagement opportunities are primarily from affluent backgrounds. It is crucial to consider how parental engagement strategies will engage with all parents.’ This describes very well how we lost our way.

Of course, we had families who required intensive and personalised intervention, and we worked closely with those families. Yet, we also had a sizeable population of parents who remained distanced from us. Did their children miss out?

Indeed the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that effective parental engagement can lead to learning gains of +4 months over the course of a year.* (Effects are higher in the EYFS with +5 months and lower in secondary schools with +2 months). With this in mind, consider that in 2017 the EEF Attainment Gap Report put the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers at 4.3 months on entry to school. A reminder, once again, that Early Years has so much potential for changing children’s lives.

We always wrestled with the idea of a targeted approach. This felt like we would be making judgements about people crudely based on demographic factors, and this could only lead to the community feeling segregated by us. Now I know the EEF Guidance Report on Working with Parents, I ask myself, what would I do differently?

Recommendation 1: Critically Review How you work with parents

I would be more strategic in identifying levels of engagement amongst our parent groups. I would aim to know and understand the challenges faced by unique families, by using key staff or parents to reach out and talk to them. Together we would identify barriers and tailor our parental engagement work to meet the needs of those least engaged. I’d start with home reading since this is where the majority of the evidence base on working with parents comes from. It’s important for young children to read phonically decodable books to their parents, to develop their fluency. But in addition, the guidance report specifically highlights the importance of promoting shared book reading at home: reading in a more interactive way and prompting longer and more frequent conversations.

I’d also work to parenting objectives such as improved sleep routines. I’d create more informal and flexible occasions for parents to come into school. I love the idea used in many schools of a weekly coffee shop’ space run by parents after school drop off and used by teachers as a safe ground’ for informal chats with parents to break the ice. When this is successful, over time more confident parents can persuade their contacts to come along and get involved.

Recommendation 2: Provide practical strategies to support learning at home

I would use technology better. Our use of technology in education has leapt forward since Covid times. I’d use it to offer support in bite-size pieces e.g. short, inspiring clips of a teacher modelling shared reading with a child. There could be two or three versions shared with parents, narrated in key community languages. I’d share some examples on a similar theme at spaced intervals. Parents and carers could watch them on their phones, on the go’, and the messages would be more likely to hit home. I’d also share accessible advice from experts such as the NHS Better Health Start for Life, and the National Literacy Trust.

Recommendation 3: Tailor school communications to encourage positive dialogue about learning

Using technology for remote and flexible first contacts, I would aim for key staff to follow up with dialogue in any form. This could be a casual chat at the school gate, in the coffee shop or a quick message dialogue. The aim would be to bring this face to face’ either through video calls, or in school chats.

Recommendation 4: Offer more sustained and intensive support where needed

This was an area of strength for us. But for sustaining engagement, I’d be more mindful of summer holidays and the importance of regular reading routines. I would schedule digital content to send to parents over the break which might support regular reading. This might be short recordings of teachers reading stories, tips for shared reading and practising reading in the environment, or reminders about events at local libraries.


Could the recommendations from the EEF guidance report on Working with Parents, if implemented well, offer us the chance to reverse the Matthew Effect? As an Evidence Lead in Education, I now think we can do more to develop better relationships with those who engage least in our school communities.

*A note of caution; if the aim is solely to improve academic outcomes, then classroom interventions working with children currently have more evidence of effectiveness at improving learning than parenting interventions with the same aim.

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