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The importance of engaging families and the wider community in children’s learning: A Welsh perspective

Written by: Suzanne Sarjeant  David Egan
9 min read
SUZANNE SARJEANT, HEADTEACHER, PENCOED PRIMARY SCHOOL, UK; CURRENTLY SECONDED TO WELSH GOVERNMENT 
DAVID EGAN, CARDIFF SCHOOL OF EDUCATION AND SOCIAL POLICY, CARDIFF METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY, UK

Despite ongoing attempts to improve equity in education in Wales, the gap in attainment between children living in poverty and their peers has remained broadly the same for more than a decade (Cardim-Dias and Sibieta, 2022). Child poverty rates in Wales cluster in the range of 27 to 36 per cent at local authority level and have increased by up to six points over the last six years (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2023). The impact of this socio-economic disadvantage may result in children not achieving their potential, getting the job that they want or securing the best life for themselves.

Wales is not alone in facing this issue. Globally, many education systems are focusing on reducing the impact of poverty on children’s attainment and wellbeing (Chmielewski, 2019). Some countries are looking beyond the classroom in order to achieve this, understanding that learning is not restricted to what happens in schools. Children spend time in and are influenced by their home, school and community, and therefore policies that reflect broader collaboration are emerging.

In Wales, research from Estyn, the Educational Inspectorate, has identified that schools that are most effective in overcoming the impact of poverty on educational attainment are those that, as well as having excellent teaching, learner support and leadership in place, reach out to families and the community (Estyn, 2020). For these reasons, as part of its wider strategy to tackle the impact of poverty on attainment (Welsh Government 2022a, 2023), the Welsh Government is committed to developing Community Focused Schools in Wales (Welsh Government, 2022b). 

The approach to the Community Focused Schools model in Wales is one that develops engagement and partnerships across the following three key elements (Welsh Government, 2022c):

  • Family engagement: Creating meaningful opportunities for families and carers to be involved in school life and decision-making and to be engaged in children’s learning
  • Community engagement: Encouraging schools to draw on and utilise links with community groups and organisations and also offer support and opportunities to community members
  • Multi-agency engagement: Developing partnerships with wider services and interventions to remove barriers to learning.

 

The importance of families and the positive impact that parents can have on children’s learning, wellbeing and development is well established (Harris and Goodall, 2008; Boonk et al., 2018). The home learning environment and the conversations about learning that take place within a family are important (Siraj-Blatchford, 2010). It is essential that parents, and particularly those from more socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, are engaged in their children’s learning and provided with the skills and knowledge to be able to encourage and support them (Higgins and Katsipataki, 2015).

By developing partnerships with community organisations, learning can be extended, enriched and connected. Some children will require the support of not only the school, but also a range of specialist services provided by local authorities, health boards and other organisations. It is important that all children’s wider needs are met so that they can learn (Basch, 2011), and schools are best placed to facilitate this.

What does this mean for schools?

For many schools, engaging with families and communities has been an intrinsic part of their practice for many years. However, for some schools, developing the three elements of family, community and multi-agency engagement in an intentional and integrated way will present challenges. Meaningful engagement takes time and commitment to develop, and schools are still recovering from the impact of COVID-19, as well as navigating wider educational reform in Wales. To support schools, £6 million has been allocated by the Welsh Government during 2023–24 to set-up Family Engagement Officer (FEO) posts in schools. In addition, a new role of a Community Focused School Manager, who will work strategically with other service providers, is being trialled. Capital funding of over £40 million has also been provided to enable schools to make changes within their buildings to facilitate greater family and community use.

So how can this be developed? Where can schools start?

Becoming a Community Focused School requires a whole-school approach that is strategic, co-constructed with families and communities and shared by all stakeholders. Planning for Community Focused Schools is key, ensuring alignment with wider school improvement planning, and self-evaluation procedures that: 

  • create a vision that reflects the values that are important to the context of the school 
  • audit current provision involving all stakeholders; parent councils or forums can be effective ways in which to engage in meaningful conversations, and undertaking a community mapping exercise to understand what is happening in the community
  • develop plans that reflect the children, families and community context; these should be based on the strengths that already exist rather than the things that need to be changed 
  • are clear about what the school wants to achieve and how this will impact children’s learning and wellbeing; this will require monitoring and evaluation of the impact of developments, again involving all stakeholders.

 

The following prompts can help schools to focus on developing their provision and are useful starting points for joint discussions with stakeholders: 

  • How does the school currently engage with families? How effective is communication? 
  • How effectively do we engage with families and support them with the transition into school? Is the school’s focus more on parents being involved in the school rather than being engaged in children’s learning? 
  • How do we ensure that the voices of families are heard? Are our strategies co-constructed with our families? 
  • How do we monitor and evaluate the impact of our current strategies? How do we know what is right for our school and families?
  • What do we know about our local community? What organisations are actively involved and what can they offer?
  • What are the current opportunities for listening to and engaging with the community? Are there links that could be developed through current staff, parents and governors?
  • What funding opportunities are available for wider community development? Can any of these be accessed to support the school’s plans?
  • Where are there already examples of effective multi-agency working? Are there current systems that could support us to develop more effective links?

 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a Community Focused School, and each school will develop different aspects of their practice at different times. The following case studies provide examples of some different approaches that schools have adopted. 

Pencoed Primary School 

Pencoed Primary School began their development to become a Community Focused School by focusing on improving the ways in which they engaged with their parents and families. The first step that the school took was to appoint a Family Engagement Officer (FEO). The FEO quickly became a fundamental part of the school and worked with senior leadership to develop a whole-school approach to family engagement. The FEO dedicated time to get to know all of the families, undertaking home visits to new families and establishing groups so that families could access activities both within and outside of school, e.g. Sunshine Club, which focused on developing craft skills. Informal coffee mornings with the headteacher and school staff were established to allow families to meet school staff in a relaxed setting.

A family forum – a formal body that represents parents and family members throughout the school – was also developed. The parents have ownership of this, working with the FEO to set the agenda for meetings, raising the issues that are most important to them and allowing parental voice to directly feed into decision-making.

Supporting transition into school is a key aspect of the FEO role. A baby and toddler group that operates during term time is free for anyone in the community with a young child who is under three. This provision is supported by the local health visitor, who attends to see the families and offer informal, practical parenting advice and support. Four transition sessions are offered during the summer holidays to any children starting nursery, so that they can spend time in school, meeting other children prior to starting. This also provides the opportunity for families to connect and for the school to understand what information parents need about starting school and to build relationships.

Parents are actively encouraged and supported to engage in their children’s learning. Teachers use Seesaw and Google Classroom to share information about children’s learning and to stimulate discussions about learning at home. ClassDojo is used throughout the school, which ensures effective, two-way communication between home and school.

Family learning programmes are developed in collaboration with parents. Many parents shared that they didn’t understand how children were taught writing and were reluctant to help at home in case they got things wrong. The school used a programme called Impact in Writing (www.impactinlearning.co.uk) and developed workshops involving parents and their children, where writing activities were modelled and support was given. Resources were shared with families to support additional learning at home. The evaluation of this programme showed a positive impact on children’s attainment in writing but also highlighted that parents felt more confident in supporting their children with this aspect of their learning.

Ysgol Gogarth

At Ysgol Gogarth, the vision of co-located services became a reality as the result of a new purpose-built school. The headteacher recognised that there was a need for close working relationships with agencies to support pupils with a range of special educational needs. Currently several key agencies share the school site. These include the integrated disabilities social work team, the child development centre, physiotherapy and occupational therapy, continuing care nurses, behavioural support, paediatric clinics and the child and adult learning disability services (CALDS), who work at home with parents. This integrated services approach enables parents to attend appointments for health-related matters on site. There is little disruption for the child and the model enables health and school staff to easily discuss the best way in which to support individual pupils.

When the school holds its parents’ evenings, it invites other organisations to set up stalls in the school hall. While parents are waiting, they wander around and chat. This helps to break down misconceptions about what different organisations actually do or provide. These professionals already share school reception spaces and are very visible around school.

Ysgol Gogarth has a well-established FEO whose support has proved invaluable to the families. The school has a broad catchment area and the FEO sets up opportunities to meet with the families in local family centres, meeting them where they are. The FEO provides practical, moral and emotional support for families, as they are often dealing with a broad range of agencies and professionals. The FEO role provides the constant link for them. This support has been acknowledged by the families as being crucial to them – they feel that they are not alone and that they are supported as well as their children.

Conclusion

Developing Community Focused Schools is just one part of a whole-system approach that Wales is advocating to tackle the impact of poverty on attainment. It is not about creating more work for schools, but about understanding what schools can do to have the greatest impact on children’s learning, and creating partnerships with others in the system who are also able to support children and young people, their families and the wider community. 

Being a small country, Wales has been traditionally associated with its strong sense of community and connectedness. There is a Welsh word, cynefin, that translates as ‘the place where we belong, where the people and the landscape around us are familiar and where the sights and sounds are reassuringly recognisable’. The importance of cynefin is a key element of the new curriculum in Wales (Welsh Government, 2020). It is further played out in the wider system-level change, which sees schools at the heart of community life and promotes the connection between children and their families, schools and communities.

More information on Community Focused Schools and supplementary guidance is available at: www.gov.wales/community-focused-schools

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