As the Gathered Together Project comes to the end of its funding, I thought it would be a good time to ask the staff team to reflect on some of the aspects of their work over the last 2-3 years. Judy shares her favourite memories from the project.
Ten months ago, I was excited about the prospects of participating in a project that I strongly believed in and am still convinced should continue. Over the years the Gathered Together team has developed a variety of resources to support parents, schools, Parent Councils and community organisations to improve parental involvement- just when the team has acquired the relevant expertise to make a difference, the project is coming to an end!
When I started, I thought making a contribution to the project would be difficult as it had been going on for over two years and most possibilities would have been explored. But there are many aspects and approaches to improving parental involvement, some of which the GT team had only just begun to get to grips with.
Looking back, I think that engaging with community organisations was an important aspect of our work. The lack of understanding about how the Scottish education system works and how parents can support their children is a major challenge for community organisations. Through an Action Learning Set, we were able to share the knowledge and experience gained over the life of our project with participating community organisations. Community practitioners implementing action research at work meant that new strategies were introduced to enable them to provide a better-informed service for families.
Identifying that EM parents and the community organisations that support them are not always up to date with the policy environment is another area we had started developing. There are aspects of child protection that many EM parents do not understand and community organisations could help raise awareness of the legal framework around children. Working with service providers to raise awareness about the diverse cultures could also improve the integration process for families.
I hope the toolkit and the resources developed will reach a wide-range of stakeholders and help support the growing number of children and families coming to Scotland to understand how the school system works and the research we have done about EM parents’ experiences will highlight the need for schools and other education services to put processes in place to support the education of children from different cultural backgrounds and diverse circumstances.
As the Gathered Together Project comes to the end of its funding I thought it would be a good time to ask the staff team to reflect on some of the aspects of their work over the last 2-3 years. Marion shares her favourite memories from the project.
For me, one of the most important parts of our work was in capturing and sharing the stories of teachers, parents and Parent Councils- letting people know about what it’s like for a parent new to Scotland to have to cope with an entirely new system and celebrating all the good practice that is happening across Scotland. Many of my favourite moments involved going out to schools and hearing the difference that supporting parents to get involved makes.
Parents spoke about feeling “like I am not a stranger in the school”, one mother from Bulgaria said that the school had become her extended family since she joined the parent council. Getting involved gave parents a real sense of confidence and belonging which was really lovely to see. We heard stories of new friendships for parents who had previously been quite isolated and even one mother who was offered a job following helping with school, giving her the change to use her qualifications from her home country as a teacher. The teachers we spoke to were all passionate about supporting parents to get involved in the school and their children’s learning, but they also said that getting EM parents involved helped the school just as much as it helped the parents and their families. Parents were able to help with translating materials, reading stories in their home language and pass on information to other parents in the community.
But my favourite part is still probably the interviews we did with children in St Albert’s Primary and Golfhill Primary- talking about how it makes them feel when their parents come into school or help with their learning. You can see the children from St Albert’s here. It still makes my heart melt every time I watch it.
The Gathered Together team met Etta Leslie, an “English as an Additional Language” teacher at Oakgrove Primary school in Glasgow at a networking meeting. Etta has long been an advocate of supporting parents to get involved in their children’s learning and regularly runs workshops for parents- showing them how their children are taught and activities they can do at home to support their children’s learning. Oakgrove Primary has seen increasing numbers of children from Chinese families in recent years and Etta was concerned that she was struggling to engage with the Chinese parents. We had recently met Jessie, a teacher at the Chinese language school in Glasgow, and were able to put Etta and Jessie in touch with each other.
Chinese and English are very different languages, the sounds and speech patterns are completely different as is the written form. One Chinese parent spoke to us about the experience of coming to Scotland and suddenly becoming illiterate, unable to read even the most basic signs. To be able to access the curriculum children need to learn English, Etta had observed that many of the Chinese children she supported with were struggling and not achieving their potential in class and felt this was related to difficulties in learning English and because their parents felt unable to support them with their learning at home. Etta explains,
“I had a good resource of Arabic parents who I could rely on for translation support as I have some parents who are actively involved in school life. When I looked around it became clear that I did not have the same resource available in Oakgrove’s Mandarin/ Cantonese speakers. I then began to wonder if this was a contributing factor in the slower progress of some of the Chinese children. It noticeable that lack of access and confidence in English is a significant barrier to learning for this group. It also inhibits parents from being able to engage, support and understand the Scottish Education System and thereby support their children’s learning. As educators we value and promote opportunities to work alongside parents to ensure their child’s educational success.”
The Chinese parents also did not often attend the school assemblies and events and this meant they were missing out on important information about what was happening in the school and the chance to see their children perform their work. Children, at primary school if not when they are older, love to have their parents in the audience and we often see children standing on tip toe during concerts scanning the audience for their parents’ faces. Attending school events gives children confidence, helps them feel proud of what they are doing and shows them that their parent values school. Jessie said that she agreed to help Oakgrove because,
“I feel that is my responsibility to become a bridge between hard working teachers and hopeful parents and to give them a chance to express them selves, would give their children better chances in their future.”
Etta and Jessie met to discuss the best way of engaging with the Chinese parents, as Jessie is a teacher at the Chinese school, she has had a lot of contact with parents from the Chinese community and was able to develop a personalised letter for each of the parents. Translated letters often translate exactly what was said in English, but Jessie was able to put the letter into appropriate language. In English we often use “soft” words like “we would like to invite you”, Jessie explained that in Chinese it was better to be more direct to show parents that they needed to attend this event. The letters were all addressed to individual parents and Etta was able to give the letters personally to each parent, avoiding the risk of them lying in a school bag for weeks and emphasising that each individual was welcomed.
At the workshop every single parent invited attended, something Etta puts down to the personalised approach. Having Jessie as an interpreter was invaluable, helping the parents feel relaxed and ask questions. Jessie was also able to help with workshops on play run by the primary one teachers- showing the parents the value of playing with their child and giving them ideas of activities they could do with their child, like jigsaws and counting games. Jessie found the experience really positive as well
“I enjoyed very much work with Etta and other teachers, I can feel the love and hope they have been given to their students, much appreciated. I only did a wee thing, but made me happy and I enjoyed it.”
Etta is currently off work, awaiting a knee operation, but has been thinking about other ways of engaging with the Chinese parents
“I am very aware that Jessie is a volunteer and do not wish to abuse her generosity. It has though , highlighted the great need here in Oakgrove and in many establishments of the benefits of home language support for both parents and children. I have since discussed with Marion (from Gathered Together) the idea of making contact with Glasgow University who have a significant Chinese student population, with the idea that some students may like to take the opportunity support learning in schools through working with parents and children.”
Having bilingual volunteers can make a huge difference to teachers wanting to engage with newly arrived families, at Gathered Together we are encouraging schools to look for opportunities to support partnership working, linking schools up with the supplementary language schools, foreign students looking for work experience and local community groups.
In our research into the experiences of ethnic minority parents and their children’s education, we found that parents are often feel very uninformed about how the education system in Scotland works- particularly at a secondary school level (the full report can be read here). In a questionnaire of 164 EM parents only 7% of respondents felt that they understood the secondary school system very well and 49% were not sure what exams their children would sit. While in secondary school children are less likely to need their parents help with homework, it is still vital that parents are involved and are able to support their children with their education- particularly in making subject choices and understanding their career options. When asked what information about school they would like, several parents highlighted the need to get more information about secondary and the options open to their children
I would like to know more about the exam system, which are the important years, when the big decisions are made (Mother, Greece) I would like to be provided with information exploring choices of subject at secondary school level, the options they have, university entry requirements etc (Mother, Poland)
St Mungo’s Academy in the east end of Glasgow has seen a recent increase in the number of children who need EAL support (English as an Additional Language), many of the children are arriving in Scotland aged 14 or 15 and will only have a short time in school before moving on to the world of work or further education. St Mungo’s EAL teacher, Abdul Latif Fathi, wanted to make sure that these new Scots were able to get the best start in life and felt there was a need to empower parents to be able to support their children. As Latif said
The children (at secondary), they don’t have time. they have to work hard and then next step is life, reality, work university
With the support of EAL area leaders Shagufta Ahmed and Rosaline Martin, they started a group for parents in the senior phase of school (from S4-S6) to help the parents get a better understanding of the education system and what they could do to support their children. The group gave parents the chance to find out more about the education system as well as meet other school staff including careers guidance and the attendance officer. These staff found meeting the parent group really helpful as well, making them more aware of the lack of information some parents have and challenging them to think how they can better engage with these families. It also gave the young people the chance to use their language skills with some young people helping with interpreting, as well as welcoming the parents to the group, providing teas and coffees and generally being incredibly helpful. This gave the young people leadership experience to put on their CVs and applications for college and university and the school formally recognised the help they had given them in the form of awards.
Gathered Together were able to attend one of the meetings and speak to some of the parents, young people and teachers involved in the group. You can hear Latif and Shagufta sharing their experiences of running the group here and some of the parents and students talking about the impact being involved had on them here
On 1 February Gathered Together delivered our last “Equalities and Engagement” training at Hillpark Secondary, Glasgow. Hearing about the experiences of schools and parents is always one of the best parts of our work and in the recent training we’ve come across some fantastic examples of Parent Councils being creative and finding new ways to reach out to the families in their schools. We just wanted to share some of the brilliant ideas that have come out of our last few training sessions
Meeting new parents Not every parent knows what a Parent Council is or does, particularly those parents who come from another culture. To address this and get their faces known right from the start, Parent Councils are getting involved in the transition time- meeting new parents when they come to visit their child’s new school. This gives parents the chance to learn what a Parent Council does and how they can get their voice heard in the school, it’s also a really useful chance for parents to ask PC members the important questions that only other parents can answer like- where is best to buy school uniform?
Focus groups Parent Councils look at a lot of different issues- including supporting the school, fundraising, communicating with parents and developing policies. It can be hard for a parent to join these meetings when there is so much being discussed. In response to this one Parent Council decided to create smaller sub groups looking at a particular issue and feeding back to the main Parent Council. These groups look at things like improving the playground, planning for events, discussing policies around homework or bullying. By having meetings that are just looking at one thing, parents who are interested can get involved and have their voice heard without having to commit to joining the Parent Council.
Books in other languages When families come to Scotland, it’s really important that their children are supported to keep their home language (supporting the first language can make learning another language easier and means that children can still speak to their family back home). However it can be a struggle to find books in the home language. In response to this some Parent Councils are trying to create a multi-lingual school library- asking parents to donate books in their home language and, in the case of one school, getting parents from EAL (English as an Additional Language) families to vote for their favourite books and the PC bought the most popular books.
Keeping language “parent friendly” Schools send out huge amounts of information to parents. With the new Curriculum for Excellence a lot of information about the new system and how children will be taught and assessed has been sent out to parents, but this information can be hard to read with lots of confusing words, abbreviations and acronyms. One Parent Council raised this with the head teacher and the school started working with the Parent Council to make the information they sent out easier to read and avoiding education “jargon”.