Some parents are like ghosts in their children’s education. You know that they are there, but you never see them.
They appear to be uninterested in their children’s life at school. They are rarely seen, except to drop a child off. They do not come to parents’ evenings; they fail to attend events or communicate with teachers.
These are the ones dubbed the “hard to reach”. There’s often a lazy and damaging assumption about those parents: that they are poor and from disadvantaged backgrounds, that they have to fit the prevailing narrative of the ones most likely to be neglecting their children.
But that’s far from true. There are parents in some of the most expensive private schools who will be disengaged. They hand over the cash and disappear. They’re not underprivileged, but the neglect is the same.
And behind that crude label of “hard to reach” are many stories and many other reasons why parents should not be judged.
First, there are the ashamed. There are people who reach adulthood with incredibly poor literacy. And they are embarrassed by that. They can’t read the school newsletter, they can’t help with the phonics and they can’t fill in the reading diary. School is a big reminder of their failings, and so some of them hide from what they see as the school’s judgemental gaze.
Next, there are the bruised, whose own school experience was so traumatic that they do not want to set foot in a school ever again. The damage is so great – the memory of exclusion, of belittlement, of failure, of humiliation – that they simply cannot engage.
And then there are the busy. Many parents are working and working hard. Even in two-parent homes, both parents now need to work. Meetings before or after school can be impossible with work commitments. Replying to letters from school can be the last thing to do on a very long list. They look after the children, feed them and love them, but they don’t have the time to check in on school stuff.
All the research says that children do better at school when their parents are engaged. That’s the headline. But what does that actually mean? Engaged how, when, with whom, on what? Is it turning up to a meeting? Is it knowing the national curriculum inside and out? Does it have to be visible engagement, or is quietly supporting a child’s choices enough? Does it have to be helping with homework or can it be motivating children to do that homework? Is it all of the above?
That’s sometimes how it feels as a parent – schools want all of that. And that can be overwhelming. It can make parents feel as though they are never good enough. So, sometimes it is easier to just give up and do none of it, rather than be judged by others.
Perhaps the answer is to be more specific: pinpoint the one or two important things the school wants parents to do, help them to do that, and keep it simple. Perhaps it’s also about meeting parents where they are, rather than where teachers want them to be. This could be physically, by holding meetings outside of schools, and metaphorically, by working with parents on what they can do, not what schools would like them to do.
Technology can now help with all this. It can make the experience less personal. It can be a home visit without feeling ashamed of where you live. It can be a talk about parenting skills without sitting in a school hall when everyone knows why you are there (see pages 10-17).
It can allow parents to engage with schools quietly on their terms. And without the fear of that judgemental gaze. You still may never see them, but, like any good ghost, their presence will be felt.
This article originally appeared in the 26 June 2020 issue under the headline “Don't spook disengaged parents – just meet them where they are”