Head to Head

Partnership with Parents

What has been learned from the five-year Partnership Schools Scotland pilot developed by Connect and engaged with by over fifty schools…read on to find out.  

The events of the last year have turned everyone’s lives upside down.

As a small charity dedicated to supporting effective parental engagement in the learning and school lives of their children, Connect has been working with parents, carers and wider school communities over the period of the pandemic, listening to views, understanding what has worked well and where improvements could be made – then sharing this widely to help build understanding. The role of families – in all their various shapes and sizes – has been shown to be absolutely central in supporting learning and wellbeing for the vast majority of children and young people.

Creating a space where parents and carers have a voice and can support improvement has become the foundation stone for Connect over recent years and can be traced directly to work we completed recently – the five-year pilot of Partnership Schools Scotland (PSS).

What is it?

Back in 2015 Connect secured funding support from Skills Development Scotland for a pilot of PSS, an evidence-based, practical and flexible model for partnerships developed by Dr Joyce Epstein and her team at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.  The PSS model is used widely in America, South America, Republic of Ireland and Australia, and Connect wanted the opportunity to introduce and test it in the Scottish system.

The purpose of PSS is simple: to improve outcomes for children and young people through involving more and different families, and community partners, in the life and learning in schools, at home and in the community. In short, parent and family engagement becomes an improvement activity, embedded in improvement planning and integral to its delivery.

PSS provides a framework which can be used in any education setting: it improves outcomes through co-production of activities which specifically focus on the important things: learning and teaching; strong home-school-community relationships and positive attitudes and behaviours, promoting health and wellbeing.

What happened?

Over the course of the Pilot, Connect worked with 50+ schools across eight local authorities. We took a very hands-on approach, working with LAs and school communities to introduce PSS and then provided training with school staff, parents, carers, children and wider community partners, guiding them through both planning and implementation. Each Action Team was catalyst for the work, developing a plan of action focussed on shared improvement objectives.

Looking at engagement in this way was a whole new experience in some settings: in others it simply built on existing practice. Over time, the objective was to make the model “just how we do things here”.

Teams created annual plans that identified a small number of targets around curriculum, partnership or health and wellbeing, with a focus on robust evaluation so that they could know and show that the work was making a difference.

Over the five years we worked mostly with primary schools, sometime for a short period and in some cases for the duration of the Pilot. While it had been our expectation at the start that we would hand over the support role to local authorities (or RICS), the reality was that pressure on resources and the constantly revolving door at local authorities and schools meant our team remained closely involved for the duration of the Pilot.

What did participants learn?

The learning of teams varied enormously depending on the circumstances of the setting and the priorities they set. Here are some of the indicators highlighted during the course of the Pilot:

  • Increased community involvement, eg cross-generational community involvement in outdoor growing project, local businesses and others supporting a community café
  • Growing recognition that engagement is not only about parents being present in school, with some schools conducting activities in community settings. Some school communities used PEF funding to support their work, both in terms of resources and also staffing, by employing family support or home-school link workers
  • Evidence of increased recognition of the continuum of family involvement, engagement and family learning
  • Evidence of growing understanding of how family circumstances impact on both the child’s and family’s engagement in learning, with schools proactively linking with community groups to support families who were struggling for different reasons
  • Examples of tangible positive impact on children’s learning and improved relationship between home and school

What did Connect learn?

It’s hard to fully explain everything Connect learned from PSS. As a parents’ organisation it provided our team with the kind of up-close picture of school life that non-teachers rarely glimpse. Probably the most notable example of this is the roller coaster ride that is the school year – although we were well aware of the cycle of holidays, in service days etc, we now fully understand the challenge of maintaining momentum around learning or indeed any other activity.

We also learned that many, many schools are very active and doing fabulous work around parental and family engagement, often making the critical link with improvement and family learning too. Others are very busy but sometimes without the focus and evaluation necessary for the work is to reap the kinds of rewards that are possible. The Connect team produced an Evaluation Toolkit to support teams carry out evaluation of their parental engagement (now made available as part of professional learning through our Family Engagement Academy).

Throughout the Pilot, we learned and adjusted the programme to meet the needs of schools and nurseries taking part: each is unique and we listened hard to the feedback from all participants, stripping back the paperwork and adjusting it to make the process as straightforward as possible.

We grew to understand the significant differences between American and Scottish cultures and the ways in which civil society functions, affecting the role and engagement of family members with school. There is a strong support for volunteering in the US which is different to that of Scotland, where volunteering is generally focussed on charities and third sector organisations.

The scale of school communities is also a major factor: very large schools of thousands of children in the US provide significantly more capacity than is available in most Scottish schools. Although Epstein’s model is framed around four goals, this often needed to be stripped back to make progress achievable.

We also saw significant differences between the Primary and Secondary sectors in their response to PSS. Engagement with parents is often seen as a weakness in secondary schools, however we also found that parent bodies in secondary schools often saw their role through a lens of accountability linked to attainment and struggled to identify as playing a part in community building or supporting family engagement. From our perspective at Connect, this highlighted an area of work that we need to address.

During the fourth year of the programme, we worked with a team from the University of Stirling, led by Andrea Priestley, to develop a small research project to look at the role of effective parental engagement strategies in those schools which are punching above their weight – in other words, achieving better outcomes for their pupils than might be expected given their circumstances.

The research sampled pupils, parents and teachers at a range of schools, some of which took part in PSS. While the research study was severely affected by COVID-19, the research team pulled out the stops and extended their research to make sure that the research goals could be achieved. There is a link to research report below; it makes interesting reading, particularly around the impact of parental engagement in secondary schools.

What now?

While the Pilot has come to an end, Connect is exploring ways we can continue to make PSS available. We have an Information Session Helping to Support your School Community which is based on the PSS model and has given many schools an introduction to the core principles.

Connect is indebted to those in the school communities which participated in the pilot, to the many organisations which supported us by offering advice, support and challenge, and to Skills Development Scotland for financial support to make this pilot happen.

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead  

Eileen Prior

Connect Scotland


National Network of Partnership Schools http://nnps.jhucsos.com/

Information on PSS, including case studies and the research carried out by University of Stirling https://connect.scot/partnerships/partnership-schools-scotland-marking-end-connects-pilot