Understanding that a child’s education is the responsibility of both the school and the parents is the key to the success of William Liston’s plan for engaging the community. His strategies directly involve parents in how their children are learning - both at home and at school - improving outcomes for everyone.
Creating a community of learners
The quality of the family-school relationship is the “missing piece of the puzzle” for William Liston, principal at Yarraman Oaks Primary School.
“You can do a whole lot of work improving literacy and numeracy and all the pedagogy-type things, but if you don’t engage parents in their children’s learning then you have much less of a chance of improving the outcomes,” says William.
William attended the Leading Communities course at Bastow in 2012 with three other staff members. All four had some knowledge of the importance of parent participation in children’s learning, but were keen to build on this and explore how they could improve the engagement processes at their school.
They also knew enough to understand that traditional methods for involving parents weren’t necessarily going to cut it at their school. With a predominance of families from lower socioeconomic and diverse cultural backgrounds, they recognised that a more “holistic approach” to facilitating engagement was in order.
“Building the engagement into the school’s strategic plan in a more positive and structured way might help to solve some of our long-standing issues, such as student behaviour and parent opinion of the learning.”
The course gave William the opportunity to clarify what community engagement is really about. He discovered that it is less about “getting parents to come up and be involved in fundraising, running fetes and all those sorts of things” and more about sharing responsibility for the child’s education.
“My idea is to create a ‘community of learners’ - a situation where parents are the major educators of the child and we’re here to support them,” says William.
Directly reflecting this concept are the school’s literacy sessions, which involve parents participating in activities and games in the classroom with their children. These work because the parents learn skills that are easily transferred to the home environment.
The school expos - where children set up stalls to display and explain what they’re learning to their parents - have also been a great success.
“That’s real engagement - parents come along because they find out directly through their children how they are learning and how they do things,” says William. “And the amount of parents that roll up to these expos is fantastic.”
Access to evidence-based research, respected expert speakers and case studies as part of the Bastow course also helped William and his team communicate the strategies to the rest of the staff.
“The course really gave us the knowledge base and confidence to get everyone on board with the idea that engaging parents was going to have a great impact on the outcome of our students.”
The action plan is now up and running, but William is keenly aware that it has to be flexible and realistic.
“You can put a lot of work into something and then only two parents turn up, so you have to be prepared to try different things,” he says.
“What we are doing seems to be actually working - which is amazing really, as people do tend to give up easily in this area - but improved outcomes for the kids is the real payoff.”