Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Parent engagement - room for improvement

The nursery is trying to engage parents, and it's an interesting experience seen from the other side. Having two hats on is sometimes quite useful, and can be enlightening. It's also awkward - as someone who works in the voluntary sector close to a parental engagement project, you know the theory and policy and practices underlying the attempt to engage with parents. The theory is that educational outcomes improve if parents are engaged in their children's education, especially if this happens in the early years - because parents are their children's main educator and the input of an early years centre/school is minimal in comparison.

So my older daughter's nursery is trying to engage me, alongside with all other parents of course. I'm on maternity leave, so I have time on my hand, an interest in getting a bit involved in the nursery too, which makes me a very easy target. What I'm about to write is not about a specific nursery, it's meant as constructive criticism which could be useful for any early years centre wishing to engage parents in a meaningful way.

My daughter has been attending this nursery for about 9 months now. When I drop her off or pick her up, there is hardly an acknowledgement of my person. There is no feedback volunteered, even when she had displayed separation anxiety in the morning - no reassurance even that she had a good day. Now that she's in the big room, parents are expected to drop off and just leave, they don't enter the room, the staff don't even bid the time of day to either parent or child. The interaction is by newsletter and through a wall which is filled with information on what children have been up to. I'm ok with that, it gives me a fair idea.

So far we had one item of written personalised feedback, which looked rather meaningless to me. We've had no one-to-one feedback (although her key worker in the first room was quite good at informal feedback). A parents evening was scheduled but cancelled. There was a fund day in the summer which was nice and I felt obliged to support it (it also raised funds for the nursery) but I didn't really get anything out of it for me or my child.

Then there are letters sent to me through my daughter. Reminders about sponsorship forms, the toy fund donations - neither of which are donations, which the wording of the letter makes more than clear. In fact the wording seriously pees me off, it's patronising and threatening, as well as disrespectful.

A parent group was offered, on a weekday morning at 10.30am. I was the only parent who turned up. Apparently, the idea was to get feedback from parents. Hm, that was a fail then.

I offered, now that I have a bit of time, to share some of my daughter's culture through exploring German festivities. This was welcomed but instantly I was reminded of all the rules and regulations in relation to child safeguarding (which I know too well, if only they asked me before starting the litany!). I got a general sense of an attitude that is reluctant of exploring new opportunities, where a "we can't" is more easily uttered than a "let's see how we can do this".

Then there's a bookbug week, where parents are invited to read stories with their children in the nursery. I can see where they're coming from, knowing from various primary school teachers that some children start school without ever having seen a book or having heard a story. I went along, to be interrupted while I was reading a book to my daughter (I thought it was about reading books?) to be told how important it is for literacy development to regularly share books and how to incorporate it into a daily routine, a routine which in itself gives security to the child. The tone was patronising, though I also noticed that the nursery teacher wasn't entirely comfortable in her role. All the parents who were there clearly do read books with their children, because if you don't, would you bother coming to this event? If you yourself had low levels of literacy or weren't confident to read books to your children, would you not shy away from such a public display? Would you in fact know about the event, not being able to read the newsletter? Just wondering. It felt daft to be told such basic advice, and I'm sure the other parents felt much the same.

I commend the efforts of the nursery to engage parents, but as it stands, I have a feeling it's not very successful. I suggested to run the parent group just after drop off at 9am so that parents with commitments don't have to lose too much time. But it's not about getting some parents involved in this group - parental engagement is about creating an ease of interaction between nursery staff and parents, which isn't there.

-To start with, I'd recommend to start with a brief exchange with parents at the start and end of their child's day. Be friendly, and get to know the families a little over time.

-Once you know the families, explore real opportunities of exchange and sharing. Think about what parents can add to the education of all the children. Pursue how to do this in a creative way. Don't find excuses why something is too complicated, instead acknowledge the rules but work with them.

-If you want a parents group, explain to parents what the remit of this is, and what they or their child gets out of it. Parents have busy lives and don't want to waste precious time. If you need MY participation to tick YOUR box, I'm likely not to turn up.

-Improve written communication to parents. You see, I may forget the toy fund one month, but I really just need a gentle (even spoken) reminder, not to be told off as if I don't care about my child!

-And as for sponsorship, oh please don't expect me to go around my neighbours to collect money for my child's Christmas present. It's not my neighbours' responsibility or interest. Just tell me what you want off me and I'll pay up, just don't call it sponsorship and give me a form.

-I also don't like giving to charities that I haven't chosen myself, animal charities are already getting enough, why don't you support a children's charity, being a nursery?

-If you knew me a bit better, you'd know that I don't need told about how good sharing books is. Tell me something I don't know, like how to deal with a whinging pre-schooler who won't feed herself. The reading books bit I'm quite good at, it's the other stuff I could need a bit of help with.

-Treat parents as equals who are effective contributors to their children's education, not as people needing educated about how to raise kids.



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