One of the things that schools sometimes fail to appreciate is just how intimidating they can be, especially secondary schools. We all have our memories of school, and for those of us in the teaching profession they are, for the most part, likely to be positive recollections. Yet when you speak to some parents you begin to realise that the fortress mentality, which many schools strive to overcome, remains such a massive obstacle.
So when I became a headteacher in my own right I was determined to continue the approach that I’d encountered at my previous school. In my first few weeks I visited many homes to talk to parents and children in their own environment – as opposed to the headteacher’s lair. Such visits were almost always worthwhile and resulted in me being able to build some exceptionally strong relationships with parents who might otherwise never have crossed the threshold of the school
Which leads me to a true story. Most of my initial home visits were related to attendance issues and there were a number of pupils who got a shock when their new headteacher arrived at the door to ask why they weren’t at school. I rarely had to come back to the house once I’d had a ‘blether’ with their parents. Anyway – a parent approached me at an information evening and explained how she was having real difficulties in getting her 16-year-old son to school, as she often left home before he had to get out of his bed. We agreed that the next time he wasn’t at school that I could make a home visit. As it happened the very next day he was absent – I asked the office staff for the address and directions and set off with a colleague (always go accompanied). I went up to the door and rang the bell ……..no answer, knocked on the door……………no answer, knocked harder………….no answer, listened at the letter box and heard loud music (he must still be in bed!!!), shouted through the letter box……….the music got louder!!, tried the front door………..it opened, walked in the house……………shouting for him to come out!!………………….no answer – imagine my surprise when at last a terrified woman with a baby in her arms came out of a bedroom to explain that no one of that name lived in the house – I’d got the right house number but the wrong street. Huge apologies, a letter and bunch of flowers helped to diffuse the matter – but from that day on I’ve always double-checked the address!
Nevertheless, it’s possible that benefit came from even an error such as this as it was the talk of the town for a couple of weeks “A’m no wantin’ that man at oor door, so get yirsel tae skil”. The home visits for attendance issues certainly worked but what proved even more worthwhile were readmission meetings after exclusions, or meetings to explore other problems which children might be having at school. To sit down, accept hospitality (” no just a cuppa thanks”) and speak as equals about the child is such a useful strategy. I can’t tell you the number of times that my perception of a child has changed by seeing them in their home environment.
I’m not suggesting for one second that headteachers should spend all their days visiting homes but don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the impact it makes when the most senior person in the school is prepared to step outside the expected. The example that such visits set empowers so many others to do the same and can dramatically change the perception of parents towards the school – even those whose experiences as children had been so negative.
I sometimes call this phenomenon the “cheesecounter effect”. It goes something like this – two people are at the supermarket cheesecounter and look into each other’s trolleys and see a range of products for children – inevitably they begin to talk about their experiences of the school. The conversation can go one of two ways – an upward spiral, with the sharing of positive experiences – or a negative spiral. One can’t ignore that so many of parental perceptions are shaped by what they hear from others. It can be through relatively small, infrequent and seemingly inconsequential activities, such as headteacher home visits, which combine to influence the perception of parents towards a school.