The case for building parental capacity in schools

Author Dr Kathryn Weston says the pandemic provides an opportunity for schools to improve the partnership between parents and teachers

Few would argue against the fact that parents are children’s first teachers and play a significant part in shaping their social, emotional and academic outcomes. A home learning environment replete with family talk, gentle expectation-setting, an emphasis on the joy of learning, and where reading is highly valued, provide some of the positive levers that can shape children’s engagement with school.

The quality of family life and relationships matter too; stability, secure attachments and boundaries are important. Research suggests that children who are parented in a loving but authoritative style are much more likely to do better emotionally and academically throughout their school years.

I always ask parents, “Who are you sending in each day?” and remind them that schools can only supplement the work done at home. Are their children well-slept? Are they grounded in positive family values? Do they understand that school is a place where we go to learn and try our best? How do they feel about themselves?

High self-esteem predicts resilience and feeling good about oneself is important. When parents and carers provide a secure bedrock, within family life, their children will go on to have a better chance of enjoying the wealth of experiences available to them at school. 

For some time, pressure has been building for schools to assume a much more holistic role when it comes to children’s psycho-social development. It is no longer enough to provide a diverse and rich learning curriculum, access to the highest-quality teaching and state-of-the-art facilities.

The pastoral needs of pupils have grown exponentially in recent years; anxiety is the largest mental health disorder among children nationally, depression is on the rise for older teens, sleep deprivation is rife and self-harm far too prevalent. Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns have exacerbated many of these conditions.

We know that parental mental health is highly correlated with children’s mental health, just as parental aspirations strongly shape children’s motivation to aim higher. Given the key role that parents also play in bolstering academic achievement and in preventing psychopathology, surely schools should be gravitating towards building as much parental capacity as possible?

Effective partnerships with parents have traditionally focused on getting parents into the school setting, introducing them to teaching methods, nudging them towards supporting their children with homework and making sure that they read to their children at night. All good stuff! However, the current pandemic provides an opportunity to recalibrate the home-school partnership and redefine what ‘effective’ looks like. 

Dr Kathryn Weston

What should schools be aiming for? 

Ensure that your school vision, values and strategies are focused on building parental confidence in their ability to support their child in multiple ways. If parents feel unsure about whether or not they are ‘doing the right thing’, they will often avoid helping altogether. 

We want to cultivate a sense that the ‘baton’ is being passed regularly between home and school, teachers and parents, in a way that feels aligned, positive and truly focused on nurturing children’s potential. It is often said that ‘there is no manual for raising children’, but this isn’t the case. Research evidence tells us exactly how and why children are likely to thrive and factors that can threaten this. 

A starting point for a renewed and effective partnership with parents could be the recently published books on Engaging Parents (2018; 2020) which form part of Bloomsbury’s 100 Ideas series for educators. 

Schools need easy and cost-effective ways to engage parents. These books are full of tips that can really get schools thinking about the right tone to strike with parents and provide simple, evidence-based, quick ideas that can be implemented to good effect. 

There are now editions for both primary and secondary teachers (the latter was published in November 2020). 

My co-author, Dr Janet Goodall, and I encourage schools to adopt a resilient approach to parental engagement; ditch what doesn’t work or hasn’t been working for some time and dream up a mode of working with parents which means that you don’t do all the heavy lifting. Children will always stand a better chance of thriving when schools and parents work together. Creating a pathway towards achieving this should be a priority for all. 

‘100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Engaging Parents’ by Janet Goodall and Kathryn Weston is published by Bloomsbury Education and can be purchased via their website:

Book extract

This extract from ‘100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Engaging Parents’ explains how schools can help all staff be involved in parental engagement. 

Idea 11: Learning across the school 

‘What’s this got to do with me? I’m not a pastoral manager, form tutor or the parent support officer. This isn’t my job.’

Parental engagement needs to be a whole-school project. It’s fine to have a champion but, particularly in a large secondary school, support for parental engagement in learning is too important to leave to one person.

Parental engagement is one of the best ways to support learning, so everyone who is ultimately interested in that learning (ie, everyone in the school) needs to be interested in parental engagement. 

Obviously, some people will be more directly involved and in different ways: front-of-house staff, sports coaches, teachers and senior leaders all interact with parents but often in very different ways. 

It’s important then, that there are shared understandings across the school about what is meant by parental engagement and how that is best accomplished in your particular setting with your parental cohorts.

Ensure that everyone who interacts with parents has access to the same training – ideally, invite front-of-house staff, coaches and so on to any CPD relating to parental engagement.

Ensure that supporting parental engagement is part of all staff meetings. If you have a staff bulletin board, post ideas for supporting parental engagement on the board and rotate them regularly.

Have something about supporting parents as part of school and individual performance targets. This ensures that all staff know that the school takes the issue seriously. 

Targets should be clear, easily understood and measurable. For example, ‘Positive phone calls with all parents in your form at least once a term’ rather than ‘Work to support parental engagement’ (this is too vague).

Teaching tip

Include as many members of staff in this process as possible – remember that parents may encounter the reception staff more than they encounter teachers!

Taking it further

Suggest a shared reading group around parental engagement – either everyone can read the same book and share their impressions, or different people can read different books or articles and share their ideas with the whole group. This is a good way of covering a lot of ground fairly quickly.

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