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Putting Community at the Centre of Education

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

My first experience of a joint parent session came almost two years ago, in a primary school in Lisburn. After four weeks of delivering the ‘Celebrating Diversity’ programme to the P3 pupils, it was time to bring the parents along too. That morning we were excited and overwhelmed to be joined by over 40 parents from both school communities. While the pupils took part in their final week of programme, parents were invited together to have a cup of tea and chat about why they had come and what they hoped to get from the morning. Once everyone had settled in and gotten to know each other a bit, parents moved on to their next activity. The local community allotment had kindly donated some seeds, soil & plant pots and so the parents decorated potholders with their child's name.

Over the next hour, we saw parents begin to connect while talking about their kids. They took time to choose designs and colours that reflected their little one’s personality. They laughed while swapping stories and, slowly, any initial nerves or apprehension begin to fade. By the end of the two hours, parents who had initially been unsure or a little nervous were in a joint circle singing a silly song about a moose called Fred.

We facilitated two more parent sessions that week with a similar format, one in South Belfast and one in Derry-Londonderry (which due to limited space, the parents found themselves having the craic in an old train carriage). Across all three mornings, almost 100 parents came together from across communities. They chatted, laughed, and shared what their aspirations were for their children.

I took three things away from those sessions:

  1. Engaging family and the wider community is vital to providing a more rounded educational experience for children

  2. All families/parents can be engaged in learning if given time and the right approach

  3. Loving and wanting the best for your child is the same on both sides of the peace wall

Earlier this year, the Expert Panel for Educational Underachievement in NI published their research and final report. The report included results of an online consultation into the factors that contributed to educational underachievement.

Responses to this identified that:

  • The main causes of educational underachievement identified by respondents were “Lack of family / parent support / lack of role models”. (16.4%)

  • When asked for suggested effective solutions to help solve educational underachievement, the top two responses were “Greater family engagement” (14.6%) and “Raising aspirations”. (11.6%)

  • "Positive relationship between teachers and parents / Breaking down barriers / high aspirations” (15.6%) was the most common response to what had worked previously when addressing educational underachievement.

The final report identified ‘Promoting a Whole School Community Approach to Education’ as a key focus area for tackling educational underachievement. From this, the panel have recommended a ‘place based’ approach to initially support the areas of society with the highest social need and have proposed the development of a new ‘Reducing Educational Disadvantage’ (RED) programme. According to the report, this programme “should provide opportunities for codesign between community partners and schools to develop and implement a strategic plan and actions relevant to each context in which all children and young people learn and develop.” (A Fair Start: 2021). Intended to build on the work of ‘Extended Schools’, the RED programme approach would build upon learning from similar programmes across the UK and Ireland.

‘In doing so, the interventions will be more targeted than before, encouraging partnership with the voluntary and community sector, particularly in areas which currently lack capacity, as well as between schools. This will enable schools and communities working together to decide what is appropriate for their learners and their context, enabling them to plan and deliver more effectively’.

Raising the aspirations of not just children, but families and wider communities are vital to achieving long term sustainable change within education. Many communities in NI still suffer the effects of past conflict and segregation daily. In some cases, over the years, this has led to an innate fear of ‘the other’ and a lack of confidence with personal identity. By engaging parents across all communities in everyday school life, you are providing the opportunity to not only engage with the education system but with those from a different background. Giving this space and taking time to allow friendships to be built not only takes that fear away but builds a strong foundation for more open and difficult conversations to be had. When families and communities are supported to feel confident within, they raise the aspirations for not only themselves but for their children. By encouraging reconciliation and direct, regular family engagement we are fostering a sense of hope and resilience within communities who have previously struggled to move forward.

The issue of educational underachievement cannot be addressed without a sustained focus on creating consistent connections with both families and the wider community. Academic achievement and pastoral care work hand in hand to create a holistic experience for children and young people. Equally, schools play a key role in many communities as a safe, neutral space for both the pupils and families surrounding them.

As children return to school this month, most of us hope the year ahead will be less turbulent than the last. The pandemic has highlighted just how vital the role of community is within our society - let’s not push it to the back of our education system.


A Fair Start: Final Report & Action Plan - Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland

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