Over the last three to five years, Bristol schools have taken productive steps to improve the engagement of parents although they ought to do more if they are to enable pupils remove hurdles to their advancement. The current engagement strategies, for example, should be looked at thoroughly and further developed to make schools be more democratically governed, but equally more responsive to the diverse needs of the local community.
(BSMG – L. Obsiye) Parental engagement in education is absolutely crucial to a student’s overall success. Parents have always been and will forever continue to be the primary educators, but in the past some have outsourced their duties to the schools alone. However, things are changing and this is actually driven by the most important partnership in schools and education: that between parents, teachers and school leaders.
The Somali community has always valued education, and Somali parents have shown that they have high aspirations for their children in many studies on the topic across the world. No parent, regardless of their background, wants their child to fail. A child, as the Chinese people believe, is a reflection and an extension of the parent and wider family. As such they must succeed to honour each other and fulfil their responsibilities and obligations to one another. Parents always feel they are doing their best and it is difficult to say otherwise as parenting is one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
However, sometimes parents do get it wrong, just like teachers. And where they have, it is important for schools to be honest with them no matter how hard this maybe. Honesty and trust are crucial to the vital and worthwhile relationship that improves and strengthens education.
Why parents do not engage
While the importance of their involvement in their children’s education is not in dispute, the unique challenges facing the Somali community in the UK as a whole has been ignored by those who now have ample evidence to act on. The old lazy institutional arguments such as the Somali community been hard to reach and not engaging with service providers is still persistent, but an analysis of their unique culture is yet to be carried out comprehensively and incorporated into educational planning and delivery locally across where they live in large numbers in the UK.
The Somali community values education and understands it is their children’s route out of poverty, social isolation, exclusion and humiliation. It will give them the visibility they need to shine and prosper. Their recognition of this is a great start. However, UK education policy formulators need to take into account that not all Somali families are the same. While there are those parents who have come to the UK with substantial cultural capital from abroad, capable of passing it on to their offspring and engaging with schools, there are those who have never set foot in a school. This latter group have limited understanding of education other than the fact that they have a right to it.
The other key issue for both groups is that, while in Somalia education was outsourced to schools which were mainly private [since 1991] and the sole duty of educating the children lay with the teacher whereas in the UK they must chip in and do their part too. Roles in Somali society were well defined and in education the teacher was paid well to do all the teaching and instilling of academic values in children. This was aided by the teacher having the same status and responsibility for the personal development of the child as the parents themselves. The parent’s only duty was to pay the fees on time and to assist in the discipline of their child(ren) when requested and needed. This mentality is clearly present in many Somali parents who still feel that they just have to drop the children off to school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon as if the school gates are the metaphorical symbol of the divisions of Labour within the education system.
Here in the UK the vast majority of Somali parents have had to start new lives and re-establish themselves again. Unemployment, poor English language skills and family breakdown in the community is high. The intergenerational gap and the misunderstanding that accompanies it are also a cause for genuine concern. All these factors have combined to create the sense of instability and uncertainty that affects every aspect of many Somali families’ lives in the UK today.
What could simply innocently appear as wilful disengagement on the part of Somali parents is mostly a complicated web of parental misunderstanding and private home challenges that many Somali parents find hard to deal with in their new environment. Single parent Somali mothers who are the majority at almost every school gate in the UK have to often manage a large family on State benefits, run the home and compensate for an absent father who generally, because it is easy for him to remarry, has lost interest in his children. The once strong extended family that existed to assist the mother is fragmented in the UK and crucial enabling members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles are saddled with their own problems. Even a single parent with a PhD in Physics or in Education would struggle under these circumstances, let alone a refugee with poor language skills, limited networks and available social support structures.
A good starting point
Schools realise parental engagement, in an age of league tables, private sector competition and social media such as Twitter, is more important than ever. It is more than PR and advertising. It is the means through which their survival and reputation can be secured for the future. Where once some head teachers were arrogant and suspicious of local communities and parental involvement they now welcome it with open arms. The days of viewing parental involvement as an unwelcome intrusion are long dead. This is especially the case in the inner city of Bristol areas like Easton, St. Pauls and Lawrence Hill. Having worked with many local supplementary schools and parent groups within schools and directly at home, it is a pleasure to see that inner city Bristol Primary and Secondary schools are making the kind of efforts to woo the parents that was lacking in the past.
The absence of parental engagement with schools in the past led to many crippling problems both outside and inside the schools. Outside the schools Somali parents spoke to each other privately about their ill feelings towards their children’s schools. Whether the allegations were true or not, it spread quickly and many parents who have never visited the schools concerned would opt to not send their children there. When their children were allocated that school by the Council, they took them there grudgingly and the problems started almost immediately. A single dispute between a parent and a teacher about a child’s performance could easily turn into an issue of race and discrimination. But usually it is not.
However, the mismatch between parental aspiration and the child’s own abilities as witnessed by the teachers are a million miles apart at times. The school becomes wary and defensive, and teachers feel under threat from accusations even where they are desperately trying their best for their students. This cycle of mistrust continues and just expands until it threatens to bring down the entire school. In essence, many schools were and some still are a battle ground between teachers and parents. The irony is that both are passionately fighting for the same students and cause but from different angles.
Although by no means outstanding, Bristol schools have remarkably improved their parental engagement processes and strategies. In almost all the inner city schools there is a concerted effort to bring parents, teachers and the school leadership to the same table with regards to how to educate the students. Most schools such as The City Academy Bristol, Bristol Brunel Academy, and Hannah More Primary School have Somali employees working as Teaching Assistants (TA’s), or as attainment advisors and community liaison officers.
Many parents also work in the schools as dinner ladies and volunteer as play and lunch time assistants in the playground. Even more impressively, some of the schools like Hannah More Primary invite parents to stay with their children for the first 15 minutes of the class day to observe and help their child settle in. The City Academy, on enrolment day this year, asked parents enrolling their year 6 pupils starting (year 7) in early September how the school can help them assist their children. On offer were ESOL courses, parenting classes and many more activities that improved the parent’s confidence and helped them engage with the school more effectively.
Further, parents were even encouraged to accompany students on school trips which already are the norm in most local primary schools. Although the coffee is not always Carte Noire or the tea bags Earl Grey, many schools have an open morning or afternoon for parents to meet senior management, teachers and other parents. This helps to strengthen the bond between those most concerned with helping students in the school achieve.
Though not at all innovative and revolutionary, these processes of collaboration and partnership building have been long time coming in Bristol and are embedding themselves at the core of the education system. The fact is that parental engagement is not seen as an intrusion by schools any longer is a major success in itself. The simple fact that parents are now actively asked to participate in the education of their children in both Primary and secondary schools in inner city Bristol schools through homework and other activities is a sign that their role is truly understood, valued and they are seen as partners and not subordinates by school leaders.
In the case of Somali parents much has so far been achieved. From first arriving as mainly refugees to an alien culture to some parents now working in schools themselves and acting as governors is an enormous achievement. However, the current engagement strategies need to progress to giving parents more ownership and responsibilities. Aside from helping their children with homework and attending tea mornings, parents need to be encouraged to take part in the decision making mechanisms of the schools which are still very hierarchical all over the UK and not just in Bristol. They also need to be heard when they approach the school leadership with an initiative to improve their institution and enhance their children’s education. This is not pushy parenting but collaboration and bottom up innovation which ought to make schools more democratically governed and more responsive to community needs.
The communication from schools to parents is weekly and informative in most cases in inner city primary schools in Bristol. In the case of Hannah More the weekly newsletter is colourful, easy to read and tell parents exactly what their children were taught that week. This can be further improved if it was translated for those who did not understand English or explained in person by the teacher to those who wish to discuss it further. This would of course take extra time and cost more, but it will inform all the parents. Not just those who can read English.
Parental volunteering on trips and at lunch and play times are an excellent start, but parents need to be educated and trusted to do more as volunteers after they are properly vetted. Somali children have very few role models in their communities and even fewer teachers in their classes. That is the same with most BME groups, but by simply encouraging parents or community groups and role models to come in, after full vetting, to schools to read stories to the class and to take part in school projects such specific class assemblies, the school leadership can improve and strengthen their engagement and trust. There are many Somali professionals, parents and community groups who are only a phone call away and they need to be fully utilised by schools.
A far easier strategy for schools to engage with parent, actively promote their partnership and diversify their teaching staff is to skill up some of the Somali Teaching Assistants to full teachers by paying for their training or at least promoting it and mentoring them into full professionalism. This diversity will draw parents in to the school more quickly and effectively. It will also provide community intelligence and role models within their own institutions which are often gender diverse but still mainly middle class and white.
Not all Somali parents will have the confidence, time and even the will to participate. Some still feel that dropping their children off at the school gate is enough. However, many more want to participate but do not know how to or what they can do. The inner city Bristol schools need to provide more information about this to parents and where needed, build their capacity to engage and understand. Alongside ESOL and parenting classes, there should (where there isn’t) be a weekly parent reading clubs in schools to introduce parents to what their children are studying or would study in the future so they can better support them at home. In addition to this, schools need to broaden the scope of their support and explore how they can help low income families secure better services, justice from the State and local government. This is important because any direct or indirect negative impact on families will hit their students the hardest. In an age of blame and labelling from central government, schools need to, without necessarily getting into the political ring, find new ways of highlighting the challenges facing their students and their families. This is especially the case in inner city Bristol where there is a great concentration of poverty, rapidly increasing gentrification and naked division.
Instead of referring to them as Troubled Families, like the Coalition government does, schools should support the more challenging families within the school populations by listening and engaging with them through outreach and personalised support. This support is best informal and on-going and not institutionalised so as to stigmatise them. In the case of the Somali families schools alone won’t be able to and should not be expected to provide this kind of support. Somali community groups such as complementary education providers and the Bristol Somali Forum, which is an umbrella organisation that promotes the unified voice of the community, can assist with outreach and family mentoring, support and monitoring. Partnerships with these groups and others are the only genuine means of supporting the most difficult families within the Somali community. However, buying into the lazy and damaging stereotypes that ignore the wider social structures that exclude them and underpin the Troubled Families policy will only ensure schools grow further apart from their students’ families and the wider community.
A glimpse at any school display board in inner city Bristol schools will illustrate how proud the schools are of their achievement and children. Parents feel the same but not all can understand what is on the walls. This is because most of what is taught in the vast majority of subjects apart from the core ones, such as Maths and science, are alien to the Somalis and other new communities. The very glittering proud displays of children’s work which most parents are proud of excludes them and makes them feel out of place. I once explained the story of Cinderella to a Somali parent in a local school and he enjoyed it but he said they had better ones in Somali. Why can’t these and others from differing cultures be taught too, especially in diverse inner city schools? If they were, they could potentially improve parental engagement and increase the sense of ownership. More importantly, it would show how they respect the cultural identities that the parents are so desired to maintain.
Innovation should not be an irony in public services like it is today. Innovation in education is crucial to social justice and reform and in the field of parent-school engagement it can no longer just be about changing parental attitudes and behaviours. School leaders and teachers must also listen, learn and engage. This is how collaboration works. They must also use new techniques, diverse literature and technologies to cater for the differing needs of their students and their families. This is how real change occurs. Innovation can seem impossible in a sea of centralised bureaucratic targets that transforms education into a box ticking exercise, but school leaders need to use all their available resources to encourage it. Innovation will not come from an obsessive centre, but from an alliance of those on the front line and with most to gain and lose from the process. This alliance ought to naturally be made up of school leaders, teachers and parents.
Schools are making enormous improvements in Bristol with regards to parental engagement. Every school in inner city Bristol has a policy for it and are actively promoting it through genuine meaningful activities. The emphasis on its importance and the understanding of the key role collaboration between schools and parents play is an achievement in itself. However, the nature of engagement with parents must improve and they must be brought in to the schools as equal partners and after training, given more responsibilities where they want it and are able to carry it out successfully. With the rapidly professionalising Somali community, the schools are not alone. There are many who want to help and the schools should capitalise on this enthusiasm and utilise the support and the skills it brings with it.
Liban Obsiye is a law graduate with a Masters in Public Policy from the School for Policy Studies, the University of Bristol. He is currently the Secretary of the Somali Forum, an Umbrella organisation for Somali Community groups in Bristol and has been a visiting lecturing at the Bath Spa School of Education in the past. His lectures were on supplementary schools and the role of culture in education policy and achievement.
The author welcomes feedback and can be contacted through the below means:Libanbakaa@hotmail.com LibanObsiye (Twitter).
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