top of page
  • Chris Jeffery

On Parents (and Expertise)

35 years in education and nearly 18 years as a Head have taught me that school's should not be afraid to stake a confident claim as experts in their relationship with parents.

Over my time in education, the relationship between schools and the parents of the students they educate has often been an uneasy -even fraught- one. Throughout my career too many of the teachers I have either worked with or encountered have generally looked on the school’s parent body with degrees of suspicion that have varied from seeing them as an inconvenience, through perceiving them as a bit of a professional obstacle, to fearing them as an adversary. All the more so working in the independent sector because our parents are our ‘customers’ in a very literal sense; they are not simply ‘service users’. The commercial nature of that relationship feels like it has the ability to pile on the pressure if it is unchecked.

Whilst I, and those I have worked with, do not generally ever have to face the fear that some very unfortunate colleagues in other settings have described in term of physical and verbal assaults from irate parents, we may well have been told ‘Don’t forget, I pay your wages’ (I have) and suffered attempted intimidation of the ‘Don’t you know who I am/what I do/who I know’ variety (I also have, even as a Head).

And, although there isn’t really an educational equivalent of the ‘Dr Google’ phenomenon, which has parents coming into encounters with schools armed with the answers they have found on the internet to the problems to be addressed, they do have two key areas of experience that can arm the preconceptions with which teachers can be faced in such encounters.

The first is that parents themselves went to school, saw teachers at work close up and therefore believe that they can claim a level of inside knowledge -even expertise- that they are highly unlikely to have of any other area of public provision. In the educational world I have inhabited, parents generally did very well in education themselves, or have flourished significantly in life having not done so at school. Opinions on our work are therefore strongly and confidently articulated…and sometimes born from difficult personal experiences.

Secondly, parents generally have much more accumulated knowledge of their individual child than the education professional sitting in front of them can possibly have, and often see a different version at home of the young person we care for between us than we do in school. ‘I know my child and they are not like that’ or ‘they would never do that’ is an emotive shield to deflect unpalpable truths or observations.

Half way through my headship career, however, I came to a realisation that I believe has had a really positive effect on the relationship we have developed with parents at both schools I have led. It occurred to me that we wear our expertise too lightly and don’t either value it or promote it with sufficient confidence to our parent bodies.

And that parents need -even want- the benefit our expertise. To borrow some of the words from my introductory talk to parents on our induction day:

It will take time for us to develop a partnership with you, combining our expertise and deep experience in educating and developing fine young people over time, with your expertise in -and experience of- your particular child.

We will trust and respect your knowledge of your child; we ask you to trust the truly enormous combined knowledge that we have of children in general -their needs, their ways, the challenges they face, the varied rates at which they develop, the context in which they learn- as well as our experience and success in helping them navigate such things safely over time.

Parents remember this. I have had it quoted back to me on numerous occasions…and I believe it works. It works because parents very often don’t know what to do to support their children, because they are encountering difficulties that are new and frightening to them, because no-one teaches you how to be a parent. It is the teenage years in which the challenges of parenting become most troubling, even explosive.

We say this to our parents:

With our very considerable combined experience, we know how the story almost always ends. However dire things might appear at a particular time; however novel or scary the problem at hand might be to you or your child; or however bumpy the road can be from time to time, all but the very tiniest handful of stories end in success, in growth, in the sending of lovely young people of whom we are all justifiably proud out into the world. You or your offspring may not have encountered a particular problem before…we probably have, and multiple times.

Two things have cemented this for us in recent years.

The first was the education we offered through the Covid lockdown. In common with most fee-charging schools we needed to offer as all-embracing an online experience as possible to the families who were paying is in order to survive. We worked phenomenally hard to continue life as normally as possible. We prioritised connection with members of our community over academic success, did registration every morning, held assemblies three times per week, taught a full timetable and offered enrichment activities after lessons.

Even more importantly (for the purposes of this blog) parents got to see behind the curtain of their children’s lives in school. They witnessed the warm and constructive interaction the students enjoyed with their teachers; experienced the obvious care shown to their offspring; valued the enormous work that my colleagues had put in -very, very quickly- to mastering remote teaching; and their determination that none should left behind. I will never forget the comment from one parent who was reduced to tears on the landing outside her child’s bedroom listening to the quality, sensing the ease and feeling the love behind what was going on in the virtual classroom. Parents saw the expertise in action, and realised that, for all their desire to, they couldn’t hope to replicate it in all is many facets.

The other thing we have done at Bootham not just to state our expertise, but proactively to offer it to parents. Over the past four years -including remotely when that was necessary- we have run a Saturday morning programme in which staff from school and experts from outside have offered parents the benefit of their expertise as we seek to work together to support the children we have in common. We have covered all manner of topics -gender and sexuality; healthy handling conflict at home; managing children’s response to difficult world news; the school’s developing approach to classroom feedback; positive psychology; how to support public exam revision helpfully; social media, and so on. That programme has also included periodic Quaker silent meetings (we had 60 at today’s), breakfast, a book group, a running club, and, weekly, a community choir, before a longstanding family lunch. Admittedly, having Saturday morning school enables this to happen.

What these two things have done for us is build a level of trust and openness, not just in those that attend these events, but also in many who do not, simply because they know we’re doing it. It’s one of the things that I am most proud of and has been instrumental in bringing many families to us (they tell me).

In the end, parents and school truly should be partners. After all, we are after the same thing: thriving young people who go on to live thriving, impactful lives. Parents need help with that -I know we did with our three!- and I firmly believe that schools should not be shy to claim and demonstrate the huge expertise they have to support them. Indeed, they should be loud and proud in owning and showing it!

54 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All



Nice post for every parent

bottom of page