The PTA recognised that some families required extra support, and opted to spend some of their funds hiring a Family Support Worker.
Identifying a need
The PTA at Rowlands Gill Primary School in Tyne and Wear, North East England, identified challenges that prevented some families from engaging with the school, which had a negative knock-on effect on children’s behaviour. They realised that some families required extra support, especially after talking to teachers who had identified that children’s behaviour in class, such as being withdrawn, reflected challenges at home.
The PTA and the Senior Management Team decided to address the problem, and opted to employ a Family Support Worker, Julie Patterson of Step by Step Training & Consultancy Ltd. Their aim was to use an ‘outreach’ approach to strengthen home-school ties to benefit the whole school community.
PTA Chair Jo Southern explains: "We knew how important a Family Support Worker would be, so we tested it as a pilot. As with other schools, we have families who struggle to engage. They may have had a bad experience themselves either as parents or when they were children. We wanted to offer parents somebody neutral to act as a home/school go-between. Julie can visit the family at home, spend some time with the parents and find out what’s going on and how she can help. Parents find they can talk to her, whereas they may shut the door on a teacher or an official person. It breaks down the barrier, and the parent doesn’t have to come into school."
Making it happen
The PTA agreed to pilot the project with the school leaders, and succeeded in gaining a grant from The William Leech charity to partially fund the new initiative.
The Family Support Worker's impact
Jo explains how the Family Support Worker operates. "She visits families where any vulnerability has been flagged or at the request of families, and helps parents resolve any kind of challenges going on in the home. That could be anything from low attendance and consistent lateness to support with domestic abuse, child protection and debt advice. She also helps them to fill out the family school meal forms, especially where there are literacy challenges and the parents might not have known that their child is eligible for free school meals. We never find out who the families are. It’s completely anonymous."
The Family Support Worker has helped the school’s parent community in a number of ways, including:
- Working with mums and dads on behaviour strategies – ensuring the child is the same at school and at home
- Engaging with families where there are complex needs
- Referring parents to other agencies, in turn giving a network of support to the whole family
- Helping families with issues such as eviction and debt management
- Providing parents with a neutral forum at school and home to talk through any issues with their child’s education, and giving information on services such as after-school activities
- Forming a ‘dads group’ to reduce male isolation
- Troubleshooting parents' issues with school by meeting them in their own environment and providing a forum for them to offer their thoughts and feelings about the school
- Setting up and attending meetings with school staff/parents to listen to parents and help resolve barriers that have a negative impact on a child’s education.
Jo summarises the positive effect the Family Support Worker has provided. "Parents now have a stronger voice, where previously they may have been timid or reluctant to open up. We’ve also found that teachers are getting more and more confident now to come forward about any concerns they have about a particular child."
The work of the Family Support Worker has had a demonstrably positive impact on addressing issues such as:
- persistent lateness
- pupil absenteeism
- poor pupil behaviour
- parenting and barriers to education
The PTA has assisted families at the school further by setting up initiatives such as a toy appeal fund to provide families who most needed support over Christmas with donations of gifts as well as a nearly-new uniform service. They have a social media presence with a Facebook page and Twitter account to keep parents in the loop. They've also just launched Classlist, to make it easier for the school to send out reminders and get in touch with parents.
Since their consistent approach to breaking down barriers between parents and school, they have seen the numbers of parents taking part with the PTA increase. "We now have sixteen on the committee, and around 30 to 40 volunteers on our contact lists."
They are not resting on their laurels, but looking for more ways to keep parents engaged. Jo outlines their plans: "We’re trying to minimise our requests to families for money by generating funds through alternative channels such as easyfundraising, MyDonate and grants. We’re about to install a clothes bank where all donations raise profit for the PTA. We recently sent a collection bag home for parents and carers to donate clothes, toys, used uniform, books and DVDs, and we’re busy scanning them in to apps like Music Magpie. All the money’s coming back into the PTA. We do the after school clubs as well, and we're looking at ways to refresh them."
The PTA at Rowlands Gill has shown the positive power of parental engagement, and the tangible benefits of a closer home/school relationship for the whole family. The School has worked wholeheartedly with the PTA on the Family Support Worker pilot and has agreed to fund the position for the next year.
Family Support Worker Julie Patterson is pictured (left), with Eileen Elliott, Rowlands Gill's Business Manager, and pupil Charlotte Fenwick.
"Some parents are more comfortable approaching school now, where they might not have been previously." Jo Southern, PTA Chair.