Dr Janet Goodall, author and academic, describes her passion for parental engagement in children's learning

8th January 2019

Connect interviews Dr Janet Goodall, our new consultant, about the importance of parental engagement and a sense of shared purpose and commitment between parents and teachers

Why did you become interested in parental engagement?

Firstly, because I am a parent of two children.

We have an achievement gap that just won’t quit. Schools can’t solve it; but we can’t keep saying it’s down to parents without supporting parents and without supporting school staff.

There’s a lot of parent-blaming and teacher-blaming in wider society. How do you respond to that?

The main thing parents have to do is love their children which the vast majority of parents do. The main reason teachers go into education, into schooling is because they care about children. That’s what they have in common, that’s the basis they need to start from, not all of the rest of the peripheral stuff. What everybody has in common is that they want the best for the child.

Maybe this is not always as true in secondary school? What explains the drop-off in parent confidence when it comes to secondary?

One of the things that affects this is parents’ own experience of education. If your experience of education is being told that you’re not good enough, you’re never going to get anywhere, or if your experience is one of shame, then you are not going to be comfortable going into schools, particularly secondary schools which are large, confusing, noisy and full of teenagers. We’ve been trained to be afraid of teenagers which is ridiculous because teenagers are wonderful. As a head teacher said to me, ‘Every time my parents see somebody in suit, they think they’re in trouble.’

One of the problems is that teachers, head teachers, all of us forget that regular people leave school; regular people don’t see school as a normal place.  Those of us in education share a disease and we all have the same symptoms so we use language that regular people don’t understand.

Head teachers always say to me: ‘How do I get parents to come in?’ I turn the question on its head and ask ‘Why do you want them to come in? What is so special about this place?’

Yes, the optimum would be that everybody’s in and out of schools all of the time. But school staff often have to make that first attempt. They have to meet parents where they are comfortable.  I’ve worked with schools where they took a lesson and put it on in the local supermarket, with all the necessary permissions of course.

Parents loved it because they could see what happened in the classroom; children loved it because everybody was seeing them; the local supermarket loved it because everybody then went and did their shopping.

Most large supermarkets have community rooms.  Of course you need to know your community. I remember saying to one head teacher: use your local leisure centre and she told me it was 200 miles away!

Where are the parents in your community comfortable? Another way in, in any school, even in a large secondary school, people who have been there a while will know whose opinion matters.  It could be a grandmother with six grandkids in the school, it could be a local religious leader or whatever. When was the last time anybody picked up the phone and said: ‘Hey, your six grand kids in the school are doing fantastically well; come and have a cup of tea and let me tell you how great your kids are?’

We’re very good at giving information to parents and very poor at dialogue.

We know that parents see the transition from primary to secondary as a time of stress, as a time of financial strain.  When we kitted my eldest out for secondary school (and he is now 33), it cost us £175 to buy it all and he never used most of it.

I recommend The Cost of the School Day toolkit.

World Book Day is one of my bug-bears.  There are so many wonderful things you can do for World Book Day that don’t include buying fancy dress costumes. That doesn’t help anybody’s literacy. One school chose a book and read a bit of it together at the start of every period, so by the end of the day, they had finished the book. 

I don’t mind dressing up but make and have the costumes in school.  It’s all very well saying ‘it’s only a few pounds’ but some families don’t have a few pounds.  Odd Sock Day assumes you have more than one pair of socks per child.  We need to think carefully about these types of activity.

One of the head teachers I worked with did the talk for incoming parents in the local mosque because that was where her parents were most comfortable. She was introduced by authority figures in the community.  Another school I worked with is very fortunate to have a parents’ room. The school has said ‘We will make sure there is tea, coffee and biscuits but it is your room, you do what you want with it.’  Members of the school leadership team stop by occasionally to ask some questions but it is not their room.

Physical barriers within modern school buildings eg electronic passes can be very off-putting, can’t they?

Not only is it very off-putting to parents but it is not explained to parents why this is important for taking care of your children. Sometimes even just a simple explanation such as ‘We’ve got a lot of security here because we want to make sure your children are safe’ is a very different message than ‘We’ve got a lot of security and you need a pass.’  It is about communicating and about going back to what we fundamentally have in common which is that we care about the children.

I always ask head teachers if they have a school improvement plan. They look at me as if I am crazy and as if I am asking ‘why are they breathing?’ I suggest they have a school learning plan; improving the school is a middle step. It is the place to start but it’s a very bad place to stop.

What will you be hoping to bring to Connect and what will you be hoping to achieve and gain?

I’m looking to achieve and gain insights into what’s happening on the ground. Working with parents, teachers, senior leaders and the third sector, to understand what are the needs really are, what do people actually want?

What I hope I can bring is some of the academic rigour. We have a problem – anybody who has ever worked in schools has innovation fatigue. We have this idea that something needs to be done and here is the idea that will help, We’ve got to stop that.  One of the things I can bring is a fairly wide in depth knowledge of the literature around what has actually worked, where it’s worked, what conditions it has worked in, So that if somebody says ‘How can head teachers, do this, then I have a bank of things that I can refer to. Working with Connect, I will have a larger bank of those things.’

One of the hard things and the disappointing things in this area of research is that there is a huge amount of good work that goes on in schools and vast amounts of good will, but nobody knows what is going on. There is no central data base for parental engagement activities, no way of really discussing it across the board.

I have an active Twitter feed to share good practice.

Teachers are constantly told they’re not good enough, like parents are told they’re not good enough.  No wonder nobody feels confident enough to stand up and say ‘I’m a good teacher’ or ‘I’m a good parent’.

We need to highlight the good work that we’re doing; we need to highlight the good work that other people are doing. We need to tell parents: ‘You’re doing a good job’. Nobody ever does that. I do! People are much more likely to walk up to someone and say ‘You’re not doing that right’.


30 November 2018