01 Moving to genuine relational and learning partnerships with parents, families and whānau

ERO's 2015 report Educationally powerful connections with parents and whānau found that a whole-school focus on involving parents and whānau was an important factor for building educationally powerful relationships. Some schools had positive relationships with parents and whānau, but few had genuine learning-centred relationships.

Leaders at BELMONT SCHOOL recognised that what they had assumed were learning partnerships in their school were in fact only positive relationships with parents. Previously they had mainly talked to parents, families and whānau and told them what teachers were doing or what the parents should do. They changed the balance of these conversations by listening more and responding to parent and whānau stories, ideas and views.

This narrative shares the process the school used to review their partnerships and the actions they took to build and maintain genuine relational and learning partnerships with parents, families and whānau.

The development of strong positive relationships had always been an important part of the school's culture. 'Succeeding Together' underpinned the way they built relationships with their children's families and whānau. This relationship building started from the time families considered joining the school and was strengthened in the way communication and reporting practices were maintained. The school's mission statement, developed with the community, clearly espoused a desire to work together.

Mā te mahi tahi ka piki kotuku Succeeding Together

In partnership with our community, we will provide a dynamic, safe, learning environment of excellence, which prepares all our students for future challenges and a love of lifelong learning.

Mā te mahi tahi o te kura me te hāpori, ka ako ātātou tamariki i roto i te kura autaia, kura haumaru hoki kia tū tangata ratou i nga ahuatanga katoa ō tō rātou ake ao. Kia whāngaia hoki te hiahia motuhake ki ngā mahi katoa o te ako mo ake tonu atu.

Their recent changes centred around:

>   identifying the extent of their partnership with parents

>   developing genuine partnerships

>   establishing the relationship with parents when children started at the school

>   sustaining and building the partnerships.

Identifying the extent of their partnership with parents

Work on building genuine learning partnerships began when the school participated in a Learning and Change Network (LCN) cluster with several other schools. One of the activities the cluster chose to undertake was drawing 'learning maps'. In this activity, children, parents and whānau were asked to draw a map explaining "what learning looks like for you”. The school also held a series of meetings with stakeholder groups, with each person drawing what learning looked like for them. They were prompted to think about the place of students and their peers, parents and whānau, teachers and technology in learning, and to position them accordingly in their drawings. Leaders analysed the 'learning maps' to help them fully understand who and what helped children's learning.

The drawings showed considerable variation between the learning maps of the students and their families compared with staff. Students and whānau saw the teacher as the decision maker, while the teachers' learning maps showed decision making as shared and collaborative. Leaders and teachers had thought their positive relationships with parents and 100 percent parent attendance at learning conversations (goal-setting interviews) indicated learning and decision making was a three-way process. They recognised that they certainly had positive relationships but these were not truly learning partnerships.

We were confronted with the fact that while we had secure and positive relationships with our community, the decision making rested fairly and squarely with the school and that 'consultation' was really just about 'telling' our families what had been decided, quite probably in the hope that they would agree with that! The dissonance was certainly uncomfortable but, to everyone's credit, was seen as an opportunity and the mandate to make changes to what and how we were doing things.

Principal

Developing genuine partnerships

Leaders and teachers began a process to promote more listening and less telling or showing. Leaders realised they also needed to take a closer look at the unintended messages their forms of communication, and the language used, may have been giving. They decided to look in detail at what they were doing and how they could make changes to shift the power balance to genuine two-way partnerships. This change in approach was deliberate, planned and school-wide and, at times, challenged the ideas some staff and families had previously held about their roles and responsibilities.

Leaders and teachers began the changes by looking at their practice through a different lens. They had begun to inquire into how involved their priority or target students were in their own learning, and what effect this was having on their achievement and rate of progress. Leaders and teachers extended their focus to think about how involved these children's families and wider community were in decisions about the curriculum and subsequent learning. Leaders recognised that many learners who were not making the expected progress were not actively contributing to or understanding their learning, at home or at school.

The board of trustees and the wider school community worked together to consider everyone's involvement in decisions about learning. They began by attempting to define what being 'active in learning' looked like and what dispositions should be taught to children to achieve this. This working together was a considerable change from their previous practice of consulting or informing families and whānau of the outcomes. The process gave leaders a purposeful context for them to trial and practise inviting, establishing and developing a partnership. This was a chance for staff and parents to learn alongside each other.

Parents', students', teachers' and leaders' perspectives and initial thinking were shared, clarified, valued and built upon during the development of ideas about active learning.

Progress with this work was communicated frequently and in different forms so ideas could be gathered from more widely than just those who were able to attend the meetings and activities.

The diagram above shows the definition of the active role of learners they decided on together.

Children told ERO they wanted ways to show their families how teachers taught things at school, so there wouldn't be so many arguments when they did work at home.

During 2016, this collaborative work continued to bring together ideas about the dispositions of active learners. The community was working to fully explain how learners would connect to, question and reflect on their own learning. Children, families and staff were also:

>   involved in the school's teacher only day

>   able to vote on how the definition of 'active learners' would be visually represented

>   working together to describe the dispositions related to being resilient, resourceful and responsive.

Leaders changed the reports to parents to include these dispositions. Leaders felt the contribution of the school community had not only given themselves and teachers great insights into parent and whānau aspirations, but also helped everyone to have a deeper understanding of the expectations they were setting.

As this work progressed, leaders and teachers applied what worked to other aspects of school life. When teachers attended professional learning and development (PLD) designed to respond to the needs and strengths of specific children, then their whānau were invited to attend. Learning alongside each other meant resources were shared and children had consistent strategies and goals to focus on when learning at school or at home.

Establishing the relationship with parents when children started at the school

When leaders and teachers met with parents and whānau during a child's transition to school, the focus also changed to encourage learning partnerships. The principal met with every family to show how they valued each child. They changed the timing for sharing assessment data and other information with parents from five weeks after a child started school to around three weeks after their start. This sharing of information during transition applied to all children starting at the school, not just new entrant children. The earlier the relational trust began to build, the more secure both the teachers and whānau felt about sharing information. As a result, more responsive and personalised teaching programmes were developed that built on each child's strengths, interests and family values.

We changed to focus more on 'hearing the story'. At the four-week transition meeting we share what we have found from assessments and other information, and ask parents and whānau if that sounds right, or is it what they would expect. We usually say something like "I have noticed...., what do you think, does this match up with what you see at home or do you see something else?"

We also ask about anything else that was happening at their previous school, or at their child's preschool. We find that sometimes there are things they don't tell us when they enrol the child that they are able to share at this assessment sharing meeting. Parents and whānau will usually only share this type of information if we have shown that we are really keen to listen and learn about the child.

Principal

A key expectation of leaders was that there would be no surprises for parents when they received written reports or if their child began any targeted intervention. Children, parents, whānau and teachers worked together to identify the children's strengths and learning needs, set goals, and plan responsive strategies and actions. Teachers sent home information that was differentiated to respond to the strengths and needs of the parents and whānau. Before sending extra work home, teachers would usually talk with the parent first and offer activities like a game the child could play at home to help with an aspect of their learning. Teachers carefully designed home learning to be completed either independently or with the guidance of whānau. Both approaches were encouraged and valued.

When a child had additional help to accelerate their progress, parents who already knew their child's strengths, needs and goals were in a better position to offer effective support with home-based tasks.

Building the partnerships

Working in partnership to gather evidence and share information around learning became more flexible. The initial hesitancy and even defensiveness around roles and responsibilities diminished as the confidence of staff and families grew. Staff commented on the increased initiation of conversations around learning by families as they were 'dropping in' more often to make suggestions. Issues and concerns seemed to have a problem-solving approach rather than appearing as an occasion to complain about the child or the teacher.

Questioning from parents was no longer perceived as a challenge to the teacher's capability, but rather as an opportunity to achieve better outcomes for our children. Collaboration was a cause for celebration.

Partnerships in learning were not solely reliant on a physical presence in the school. With the increased use of technology, families were able to give 'real-time' feedback to their children as well as to follow progress and comment on blogs or Facebook, using emails, phone calls and the school website. Children sent a weekly email home about their learning, and regularly took their Chromebooks home to share their work. The school newsletter, which had traditionally gone out to families weekly, became redundant. Parents indicated that the more frequent and less 'wordy' communication from children and teachers was more effective. While they continued to have face-to-face learning conversations led by the child, these no longer needed to take place at the school.

Valuing diversity means looking at the way we have meetings, the way we write reports, having different meeting times so we hit a different audience. We will sometimes have meetings at 2pm because that is a time parents can come that coincides with their collecting children from school.

We have meetings at 7pm so working parents can come. We have dinner meetings.

With our maths meetings we had the same meetings at three different times for half an hour each, so that parents could go across the school teams.

We ask families what will suit them best and provide childcare.

We use Hutt City Church for assemblies, so we asked our Muslim families if that was okay for them. They were really appreciative that we asked.

Leaders

The tone, intent and variety of forms of communication had shifted. Team newsletters to parents moved from providing information about the intended curriculum focus and upcoming events, to seeking input and direction from whānau before planning the curriculum focus. Parents, whānau and the extended community were encouraged to share their perspectives, skills and expertise. Teachers saw this gave children a much wider range of learning experiences in response to their specific interests. School was no longer perceived as the only site of learning.

One subtle change to reporting learning to parents

The children were already making choices about the artefacts that illustrated their learning during conversations, and when reporting achievement in relation to the National Standards. The simple action of leaving the ‘How you can help at home' section blank in the conversations template and report meant it was up to the children, parents and whānau to make the decisions and not the teacher.

This change acknowledged and affirmed the important role and skills families brought to learning, and signalled the expectation that ‘we are all in this together' and are all committed to achieving accelerated outcomes for children.

Sustaining improvements

As the changes to their approach were agreed by teachers, parents and whānau, it was important they were consistently applied. The fact that both parents and teachers knew what was expected made it easier for leaders to introduce a consistent application of the agreed approaches across all classrooms.

Additionally, leaders were keen to maintain the gains they had made in building whānau partnerships, and included the following expectations in job descriptions that were sent out to prospective staff:

Parents as partners in learning

>   Whānau feel valued, welcomed and respectfully acknowledged by the way we collaborate and build relationships.

>   There is regular communication with home, informing families about programmes and events.

>   Deliberate actions are taken to communicate positive news.

>   The teacher is available in the room for informal chats before and immediately after school.

>   Whānau are kept fully informed of their child's progress. Nothing should ever be a surprise in any formal reporting situation.

>   Reporting is honest and professional. Success is celebrated and strategies for achieving next steps are identified and agreed in collaboration with parents.

>   Issues are dealt with quickly and follow school procedures.

>   Community skill and assistance is used where appropriate.

>   Help is timetabled and roles are clear and supported.

>   Confidentiality of each student and their family is mutually respected.

The person specification for new teachers stated that the successful applicant will (among other things) "have an open mind about the role of the teacher and be active in sharing decision making with students and their whānau”.

This will always be a 'work in progress' as the aspirations of the students and their families, the demands of the curriculum and the direction of educational thinking, and the makeup of the staff are dynamic and constantly changing. We have learnt that strong partnerships in learning are even more important in the tough times, and this is when we all have to work hardest at building and maintaining them.

Leaders