Our school in Birmingham is for 96 pupils aged 11-19 who have a wide range of mostly severe learning difficulties. Partnership with parents is vital because they and their children often live far from school and the whole family can feel isolated. We need to work closely together because our pupils find it hard to apply what they learn at school when they are at home.
We had a parent and carers group for many years that was poorly attended. Alison Watson, a parent of a former pupil, had trained with an organisation called Face 2 Face as a listener for other parents and felt passionately about the need for them to support each other. Working with other parents she re-designed the group with a title and a logo that captured the warm family ethos of our school community. The group was now led by parents themselves rather than the head teacher. It meets each half-term for two hours around midday with an informal buffet lunch to create a relaxed atmosphere. This has created an open space in school that is non-judgemental and where parents can share the frustrations, worries and pride that they experience.
Family Circle plan the topics and visiting speakers who feature on their agenda. These include signposting to support agencies and short breaks, benefits advice, observing learning activities, transport policy and helping the school to communicate more clearly about pupils’ progress. From these have grown a series of Family Learning Sessions where parents are invited to sessions that are relevant to the individual needs of their child on areas like Makaton signing, the Picture Exchange Communication System or reading. Parents see their youngster using these approaches live or on film and then learn how to support them with materials that they choose. This has led to real breakthroughs in meaningful communication at home.
We had seen a marked increase in the number of parents who come along to Family Circle from around six who came to the previous group to up twenty-five families who now attend key sessions. This has opened the door to our school for many parents who might not have felt confident about coming to us before. This effect has carried over into Family Learning sessions and the social and fundraising events organised by our Friends Association by increasing participation and strengthening our sense of community. We have also seen an increase in the number of pupils attending the out of hours and holiday playscheme activities that we run.
Although we always encourage pupils and their families to return for social events, and although many do, we still lose regular contact with some folks. So as ever we need to be encouraging new families to visit Family Circle. Our parent governors regularly attend and by listening to other parents they are able to represent their views. Staff value coming to Family Circle where they can develop the areas they lead on by listening to what parents want. Family Circle has come to play a central part in the life of our school by bringing all the members of our community together to listen to the people who know our pupils best – their parents.