Tania Choudhury, Sheringham Nursery School

Over the years, extensive research has determined just how important parental engagement is at any stage of a child’s development, perhaps more so in the early years. However, there appears to be limited research to capture how schools work to engage minority ethnic families in particular, and more specifically families that have limited English. Sometimes these groups of parents are referred to as BAME; however, this is not inclusive in considering other minority ethnic groups such as Gypsy, Roma and traveller heritage groups. As time has progressed, many of these groups have demonstrated how poor parental engagement can lead to limited progress and outcomes. On the flipside, however, there are some ethnic groups that are now high-achieving, and this could be related to the exemplary work that has been carried out by local authorities such as Tower Hamlets to engage them.

As a second generation Early Years teacher of South Asian heritage, this topic matters deeply. Without thought for progression, the cycle of poor outcomes and aspirations only continues. Too often in my practice and community have I seen this happen. This perspective piece therefore will share the literature that does exist around the topic, followed by a discussion of issues that I have identified while working with this group of parents and finally how I designed a delivery of services to successfully promote engagement.

Various green papers and the work of the coalition government have called for greater working relations between schools and parents. The EPPE project, led by Sylva et al., highlighted the significance of parental engagement in the Early Years (2004). Partnership with parents allows for accurate assessments to be made of the child and prompts further learning. It also found that the home learning environment had an immense impact on how children learnt.

While the importance of this partnership has been recognised, it is interesting to note some studies that capture the perspective of schools in developing this. In 2002, Liz Brooker carried out a comparative study examining the Early Years experiences of Bangladeshi, Anglo and dual heritage families. Her findings were stark. She discovered that, despite school policies, there existed a sense of institutional racism within these settings, as they very often blamed children’s lack of progress on the parents. Brooker states that ‘partnership between parents and professionals requires a much greater commitment of time, resources and goodwill’ (p. 309). Prior to Brooker’s study, Ogilvy et al. (1990) had found that staff at a Scottish nursery treated ethnic minority children differently, both in practice and application of policies, impacting the partnership – or lack of – with parents. Brooker’s study demonstrates therefore that not much had changed a decade later. This supports the idea that ‘Whiteness’ as a concept exists, which can manifest in the form not only of institutional racism, but also of ‘White saviourism’ – essentially, the idea rooted in colonialism that White people must save ‘tribal’ minority ethnic communities. Such concepts are important when considering the barriers of institutional racism, for they provide context.

Some have argued that, in actuality, it is schools that are harder to reach rather than parents, challenging the narrative that some parents purposefully avoid services (Harris and Goodall, 2008). Kemp et al. (2009) recognise various reasons as to why parents may find services harder to reach, including language barriers. Being unable to understand professionals puts parents off, as does previous generational negative experiences of working with services. This suggests that there is almost a cycle: negative experiences endured by each generation are passed down, providing greater impetus for why we must work to break such cycles.

Studies have informed my practice in engaging these families but, as mentioned, most of the research is dated. For that reason, I would like to shed light on my own experiences as a SENDCo working in a maintained nursery school, as well as my own racialised identity and ethnicity as a British-Bangladeshi woman.

In 2018, I carried out a small-scale research project to hear the perspectives of Bangladeshi parents on their child’s early learning. This formed the basis of a chapter in a book that examined how children’s learning is assessed (Grenier et al., 2018). I interviewed parents in groups, allowing for conversations to flow naturally. A key finding that emerged was that parents were moving away from traditional ideas of submissive forms of teaching, and instead wanted to embrace different approaches. From conducting this project, I found that discussions allowed for their previously neglected voices to be heard. The findings dispelled many misconceptions. Parents were eager to learn about how their child was doing at school and wanted to engage with the school to find out more about how they could enhance their child’s learning experiences. This desire to do so needed nurturing, but this could only be possible if schools knew what parents thought. I concluded from this project that we must make more of an effort to listen to what parents think about their children’s learning, as well as cultural perceptions around early years in general, in order to best engage parents. This led to some changes in how we engaged parents at school, which will be shared later in this article.

In 2020, I worked as a research officer for a university, investigating children’s early learning of home languages. In doing so, I bettered my relations with parents, developing how I communicated with them, and was able to further discuss other points around their views on engaging with schools. I discovered that many parents found it hard to do so because of their lack of confidence in the English language and the British schooling system. For them, both were alien and therefore they did not feel that they could best support their children’s learning; instead, they would do more harm than good. This was complemented by gender roles imposed in certain minority ethnic groups that prevented mothers from learning, instead busying themselves in the home.

When the findings of the two projects above are combined, it is evident that there is a lot to consider. Parents clearly do want to engage, but barriers such as languages, perceptions and confidence prevent some from doing so. Considering my own research and what has been suggested in the literature, I thought carefully about how I could encourage parental engagement with this group of parents.

As parent education seemed to be a factor that impacted confidence, I felt that it was important to empower parents in other ways, through means in which they did feel confident. This has been suggested by Moran et al. (2004) in their review of parenting support as being a crucial move. Effective communication and development of rapport and relations is key before providing more formal intervention. Through careful discussions with these parents, facilitated by the use of bilingual staff, other parents who spoke the same language or Google Translate, I was able to find out parent skills that they were happy to share. For instance, one parent worked as a sushi chef and another had been a seamstress, and they came in and shared their skills with the children at the nursery. Both children and staff were fascinated and this gave the parents a sense of confidence. Some parents came in and read stories in their home languages; other provided recipes and feedback on how to improve the home corner to represent their culture, and even showed children how to drape sarees. By engaging parents in this manner, not only did the children benefit from a more inclusive curriculum but the parents also felt valued, and this bettered relations, allowing dialogue and greater partnerships.

Improving the resources in the provision to reflect the diversity of the community was important. It allowed us to consult with parents about how to do so accurately, and that dialogue helped parents to understand the value of role play, for instance, specifically for boys. During the Lunar New Year, the home corner reflected a traditional Chinese home, with varying cookware and seating arrangements, and this then changed during Eid. The home corner box was filled with sarees, kimonos, turbans and lungis, so that children could replicate and re-enact what they saw at home and in their communities. The addition of such attire normalises cultural dress in the community, as sometimes only having books, displays and mannequins feeds into an orientalist gaze of alienating traditional dress. The book corner had books reflecting different cultures and, most importantly, different scripts. This enabled parents to help chose a book with their child, and also encouraged parents to read the books at home. These small steps welcomed parents into the school community and allowed for positive relationships to flourish.

Another way in which improvements were made was by delivering workshops in different languages. This worked in two ways: either workshops were co-facilitated in another language or peers were invited to work alongside parents. An example of this was that I had identified a number of children with behavioural difficulties whose parents would benefit from parenting support. However, the barrier was that the parents could not speak English. Therefore, the workshop was delivered in their home language by a member of staff. This allowed parents to not only understand the advice, but also discuss it among peers and form networks too. This was also carried out with SEND workshops delivered by our speech and language therapist, as lower outcomes were identified among children with high needs from a particular background, and thus the interpretation helped to bridge this gap. Peer support from other parents was offered for other groups, such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA) workshops and coffee mornings. All of this careful thought into how certain groups in the community could access the support offered by the school and engage ultimately meant that the children would benefit. Thinking outside the box, identifying the needs of the community and particularly those that are most vulnerable and in need of support, was key. For coffee mornings and SEND parent groups, theories around co-production were considered to understand how we can best work with parents to cater to their needs (Arnstein, 1969; NCAG, 2016). Parents helped to create the groups, as they decided what input and support they wanted. Consequently, sleep therapists and dieticians were invited to groups upon parental request.

As lightly touched upon, the employment of bilingual staff has been essential. Not only does it allow communication with parents and families whom you may otherwise find challenging to engage, but the workforce is also diversified and you are recruiting from the community. That representation alone encourages good relations between the school and the families, as it demonstrates that diversity is valued.

In conclusion, there is much that can yet be done to strengthen relations with minority ethnic parents. As the limited evidence suggests, the narrative that parents are hard to reach and engage is somewhat false. In actuality, they do want to work with schools, but schools are not welcoming or accommodating to the many barriers that exist. This piece has presented examples of ways in which this can be changed and fundamentally help to shift this narrative of hard-to-reach parents.

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