A five-step guide for people working with children and teenagers. This month: involving parents in service development and delivery
Why do it?
It may seem an obvious question to ask, but it is vital to establish exactly why you want to involve parents more in service delivery and how, and what you realistically hope to achieve from the partnership. Setting out idealistic aims that can never be realised will only lead to frustration on all sides. Care should be taken not to consult for the sake of it, and to be aware that asking parents questions they have been asked countless times before could endorse the feeling that they are not being listened to. A clear structure, such as the one set in The Family Policy Alliance’s new toolkit for practitioners should help.
Open ears, open minds
Most practitioners are alert to the importance of ensuring that vocal, confident parents don’t distract attention away from those whose voices are not heard, whether they are vulnerable or hard to reach. But by the same token, it is important to ensure you do not shut off to what the loudest parents are telling you too. As one campaigning parent of a 14-year-old disabled child puts it: “Sometimes when you shout about it people don’t actually hear what you are saying. But you should really try to listen – don’t stop because you think they are a stroppy parent.There may be a reason why they have reached that pitch.”
Balancing the expertise you have as a professional with what a parent has acquired bringing up their child is never going to be easy, and friction is inevitable. Keeping sight of the ethos that parents are experts in childcare should help. Adenike Ade-Onojobi, who took part in a parent support scheme run by education charity ContinYou before moving on to become a scheme facilitator, believes the positive impact parents can have on the success of a service remains undervalued. “If it is something that is supposed to be used by parents, parents should definitely have a say. A lot of money is spent on what councils or schools say is needed, but might not be.”
Show us the money
Some of the best ideas come about when people approach things from the outside looking in. So says Sue Redmond, chair of Full of Life, a disabled parents group representing around 200 families in Kensington and Chelsea, west London. But she believes commissioners are often reluctant to commit funds to projects and initiatives whose shape and focus have been heavily influenced by parents for fear that they will not understand if the funding stream ends. “Don’t be afra id to commit to funding a project simply because you do not think you will be able to support it beyond a certain timeframe. Parents are not stupid, and understand that they are working in a partnership with limitations
Move with the times
Children grow up and their needs, as well as those of their parents, will change. It is vital to listen to them and ensure your organisation is fluid enough to respond. Dorit Braun, chief executive of Parentline Plus, explains: “Parents’ changing needs must be listened to if you want them to commit to staying with your organisation and developing your service. It’s a two way street.” Paula Woodall, family learning team manager at ContinYou, adds that creating a system where parents are given the confidence to go from being service users to deliverers is a great way to ensure long-term involvement.
Be clear about your aims and tangible outcomes. You might also want to formalise your participation initiative on paper. If so, The Family Policy Alliance advises that you should be prepared to be transparent from the very beginning about sharing aims with parents. Consider the difference in approach you may need to encourage parent participation compared to approaches used to engage children. You may also want to set up a parent forum and establish a system for contacting parents.
Don’t expect too much from a parent – set up a system that allows for as much or as little input as a parent feels able to make. And don’t allow progress to be undone because an active parent moves on. Permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills David Bell said in February that ensuring links endured beyond good individual relationships was a “big issue”.
The Family Policy Alliance’s toolkit on parent participation, produced by the Family Rights Group, the Family Welfare Association and Parentline Plus, costs £10 + £3.00p&p. An order form can be downloaded from www.parentline plus.org.uk. The charity for parents of disabled children, Contact a Family, has produced a guide for parents on parent participation as well as information for practitioners wanting to give parents more power.