Notes from the field of public involvement

Wednesday, 29 March 2006

New Page Needed in Involvement – PARENTS' FORUMS

We welcomed Caroline as a new Associate Consultant earlier this year. One of the activities she has got us interested in is parent involvement. This is an exciting extension of our work with patients and users in other spheres and in her first M-A-C blog post, Caroline describes what happened when a Parents' Forum was launched at a London primary school where she is a parent governor. At the end of her piece, there is an invitation to get involved and set something up at your school. Caroline will be pleased to hear from you -

Motherhood, apple pie and axes to grind

I have just visited the DfES website aimed at teachers, and clicked on a link to parental involvement. "Page not found" came the answer, which tells you something, though I am not quite sure what.

Some time over the past few years, the government has worked out that children whose parents are involved in their children's schooling are likely to make better progress, have better attitudes to school and to behave better. But when it comes to defining what the government, or indeed schools, really understand or mean by the phrase "parental involvement" it all starts to look quite literally like "motherhood and apple pie".

Helping the school out by raising money or baking a few cakes, making up numbers on a school trip or helping build a website is to be welcomed. But what happens when parents decide that they want to know more about, or even influence, what happens in the classroom, the playground or the dining hall?

No enthusiasm for the governor role

Well, you can, of course, stand as a parent governor but it is very clear that most people do not want to get involved in this way. You can see why. No-one from the top to the bottom of the system seems to know what governors are supposed to do or how they are supposed to do it, least of all the governors themselves. And governors' meetings can be exceptionally dull. Take my word for it.

Parents' Forum launched

In the London primary school where I am a parent governor we have tried to address this problem by launching a Parents' Forum. For a long time the Parent Staff Association (whose role was to fundraise and organise social events) had been bogged down with disgruntled parents who had axes to grind and bones to pick but who felt that no-one was listening. Pockets of adult disgruntlement and rebellion were popping up around the school. It was time for a new approach.

Largest Parent Gathering in 5 years

The governors agreed to invest in getting the Forum off the ground so we invited M-A-C to help out at the first meeting in November 2005. We flooded the school with welcoming posters and flyers provocatively headed "Parent Power". Ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to start there were five parents in the room, three of them parent governors. The doubters began to smirk - but within the next ten minutes over thirty parents arrived - the largest number of parents at any sort of open meeting the school has seen in at least five years.

It was a tricky meeting. Some people had a clear idea of what they wanted the forum to achieve and how it might work. For others the concept of a forum was rather strange and all they knew was that they were angry, frustrated and not without cynicism. But despite the strong views that people held there was an equally strong sense that what people wanted was not a therapy session but a chance to make things better and to make their voices heard. We set about identifying some ground-rules for how the group would function, not only practical arrangements like refreshments, interpreting and childcare, but also how we would talk to each other and how we would exercise our shared responsibility to make it work.

Aim and Purpose of Forum - 9 initial areas

The second meeting, chaired by the first of our volunteer chairs, began by clarifying the Aim and Purpose of the Forum. We did a quick brainstorm and identified nine initial areas where people had issues they wanted to raise and then narrowed that down to a "top three" which we then discussed in groups, coming up with a list of actions that might make a difference broken down into "quick wins" and "slow burns". The chair then met with the head teacher to follow-up on all the issues raised.

Progress - Funding and Support

Four months and three meetings later we are beginning to get a much stronger sense of what the Forum might be able to achieve. We have secured funding for our meetings from the local authority, which is keen to see similar parent groups established in other schools. We have a strong and diverse core group of parents, attendance remains at around 25 to 30 parents per meeting with further discussions often continuing by email. We have had two guests, the head and an external adviser from the local authority. The meetings are timed to precede governors' meetings and a report from the Forum has become a standing item on the governing body's agenda.

Our most recent meeting was a very well-attended and constructive discussion of all aspects of communication within the school, with parents coming up with some exciting new ideas. We have discussed setting up a "buddying" service for new parents and an advocacy and support service for parents who are unsure how to approach the school or need language or other help in getting through the system. Parents have come up with suggestions for improving parents' meetings and school reports. We are hoping to bring the governors, staff, parents staff association and forum in the planning of a welcome event for new parents in September. The ideas are pouring in and new people join us at every meeting.

Reassurance (and Role Plays?) for Staff

Unsurprisingly the response from staff has been mixed. The head is keen and supportive but perhaps a little nervous of the monster she has allowed us to create. Some teachers were offended at the explicit statement that the forum was NOT FOR THEM. But we are working on them. After all, we are simply providing a forum where people can talk freely and openly in a constructive environment just as teachers and other members of staff are able to do in their own weekly staff meetings. A sign of increasing confidence among the parents is that they are now talking about inviting staff to attend certain Forum meetings to explain things and contribute to the discussions. There has even been the suggestion that we should hold a role-play based session focussed on parents' evenings, where parents will play teachers and vice versa. I can hardly wait!

Implementation is the Challenge

The Forum has already changed the way that parents relate to each other in the school. But for most people the real indicator of success will be when we start to see some of our ideas implemented and some of our concerns addressed. That is the challenge that faces the school, and the Forum. I'll let you know how it goes.

If you think a Parents' Forum is the way to go, email and she will tell you what you can do and how the M-A-C Partnership can help.

Caroline Millar | Send feedback