During the first two months of 2019 I have been able to attend a number of professional learning events across Scotland. What has been impressive about these events is, not only the breadth and range of development activity taking place across the system, but also the commitment, professionalism and determination of people to getting better at what they do.
What such events also provide, is the opportunity to develop my own thinking and understanding, through listening to the experiences of others and engage in a dialogue around the issues, experiences and insights of different participants. I believe that professional learning with the greatest impacts, should produce changes in facilitators and leaders, not just the participants.
This week I was facilitating a session on parental engagement, on behalf of Connect the parent/teacher organisation in Scotland. This session was with school leaders, and others who had responsibility for this particular area of school development. What I hope to do in this post is share some of the main insights from this event, combined with some further musings following the event.
In the session, I pointed out that Connect, and myself, see parental engagement as part of a continuum of interaction between parents, or significant adults in a young person's life, and schools and the education system. It starts with parental involvement with their child's school and teachers, moving through to parental engagement and then into wider family engagement. Each of these builds on from that initial involvement with schools by parents, demonstrating interest and willingness to support the work of the school, through to engagement, which enables parents, families and wider community to be able to better support the learning of young people, through working in true partnership.
Of course, some schools and parents never get much beyond the initial involvement stage. That is not to say such involvement is not a valuable aspect of school/parental relationships, but what we do know is that if we can move this on, to one focused on engagement with a purpose, we can support our young learners to achieve even higher, whilst addressing many of the major issues we seek to deal with, including equity and wellbeing.
Alma Harris and Janet Goodall wrote in 2007, 'Parental engagement in supporting learning in the home is the single most important changeable factor in student achievement.' There has been a whole swathe of similar research conclusions, and is possibly why so much government policy in Scotland aims to support such change. In the light of this research base, we would be derelict in our duty as educators if we didn't seek to tap into the potential offered.
I would qualify this by adding, this is not about more things for schools, teachers, or their leaders to do. We have to keep proportionality and manageability to the forefront of our thinking and our practice in this area, as in every other. For schools to make a difference in this area, they need to think, discuss, plan and implement a process of managed growth in partnership with parents and others. It may well be that consideration has to be given of which activities we need to stop doing, which have less impact, to give the time and space for others which can be more helpful to all. What is certain is that time is required to move our progress on, step by step. This will be no quick-fix.
However, this post is not about the merits or otherwise of parental engagement processes and activity in general. This week's session looked specifically about how schools might go about evaluating the impact of such activities. Having worked with many schools across Scotland, Connect had become aware that many were struggling to evaluate the impact of the fabulous work already happening. The most common form of evaluation consisted of counting how many people turned up for events. This has some limited value, but does not provide schools with deep or higher-order evaluation data or feedback.
The key messages we discussed were that schools already have a lot of qualative data and information about pupils and they should tap into this, before they seek any more information. Schools have lots of assessment information, diagnostic data, standardised screening results, and so on that they can use to track pupil progress over time, and following different interventions. Connect have sought to develop a simple toolkit of evaluation activities, linked to possible parental engagement activity, and these aim to be easy to use, simple to understand, but which could provide schools with a lot of useful information.
Think of the electronic smiley faces waiting for you as you pass through the security checks at any airport. These have become part of our flying experience, they are simple to use, require no reading and very little time from customers. But, they provide airports and airlines with a vast array of useful information. Are customers generally happy? Does this vary according to time of day/week/month? Is it different when different airlines have flights? Are the results consistent for different crews manning the security checks. It goes on. When the results are collated, it will allow airlines to pinpoint issues, look further at these, make changes, then see if passengers feel the improvements.
You can use similar approaches when considering evaluating parental engagement activity, so that you have good useful information to work with. Schools need to be slightly different in the approach taken to evaluation at airports, because it is very important that they view evaluation as part of an on-going, continuous process. Evaluation becomes less meaningful or impactful when it is viewed as an event, usually at the end of something, rather than as part of a process, that needs to be built in at the outset of any development. If you don't know where you are starting from, how will you know if you have made an impact? If you don't evaluate as you go, how can you adjust and shape what you are doing?
If you get your approach to evaluation right, you should have a lot of high quality information about the work you have been undertaking with parents, and you are better able to evidence that for various audiences. This is not however, about collecting data so that you can prove what you have done or have been doing. Evaluation is first and foremost for the evaluators. It is to tell you where you are. It is to show you what you have achieved. It is to demonstrate your impact. Most importantly, it is to help you identify the next steps you need to take. Its not about proving, but about improving. The proving aspect, is merely a by-product of your improvement processes.
Perhaps, we still spend too much time collecting data and information, so that we can present this to various 'audiences' in the system, and in doing so we lose sight of evaluation's true purpose and usefulness. Evaluating and collecting data should not be viewed as the end of a process, but as the beginning of another one. Evaluating and collecting data so that you have it ready to prove what you have done, may keep you out of trouble with the system police and judges, but even they may ask, 'so what?' What you reply is important to you, them, but most importantly, your learners.
You can find more information about Connect at http://www.connect.scot or @connect_scot on Twitter
Janet Goodall is hosting a Twitter chat around parental engagement on 12 March 8-8.45pm GMT