When Kate Oliver’s children started school, the PTA was struggling by with just two members. Five years on, there’s a committee of five, 10 dedicated volunteers and parents to call on for big events. Here’s how they did it!
Tell us about the school…
My children go to John Burns Primary school in Wandsworth, South London. It’s a smaller-than-average school (250 children) serving a very diverse community: three-quarters of the children are from minority ethnic backgrounds and around 50% are entitled to the pupil premium. Some of the challenges for us have been:
- We had parents who didn’t know what a PTA is.
- We had parents who thought a PTA was responsible for school policy and decision-making. Several of our parents are from France, for example, and apparently in France, the PTA is quite a political body.
- We had parents who were wary about getting involved with anything school-related, for example, parents who didn’t feel comfortable or confident in the school environment.
- The majority of parents were working – if not full-time, then part-time – so they didn’t have time to support the PTA.
- Incomes weren’t high, so parents were cautious about getting involved in fundraising events.
So, how did you tackle those issues?
The key for us was one person – a parent with a child in Year One – who was very passionate about the benefits a good PTA can bring to a school. She volunteered, along with two of her friends, and they became the bedrock of the group. What she brought – and what you need – was enthusiasm and tenacity. Our current chair is the same but she also added an absolutely inclusive outlook. Her attitude was that everyone would have something to give if they knew what was happening and how it benefited their children. So, she was out there, on the playground, regularly talking to people.
Why was that important?
It was important because it built awareness of what the PTA does and why it’s important to have one. It created a sense of community – she got to know other parents, so the PTA wasn’t ‘an unknown body’, it was represented by someone the parents knew and liked. And it made the PTA into a ‘going concern’. It had energy and momentum, so people wanted to be involved, or were at least more willing to volunteer. It also helped us to understand what the barriers were for people – what was stopping them from joining the PTA or getting involved with events – so we could start addressing those issues.
What did you do?
- We created a PTA membership card for every parent. It was a little, laminated card saying, ‘PTA membership card’ followed by the parent’s name. That was a way of explicitly telling every parent that they belonged to the PTA. We weren’t an exclusive body!
- We followed up the policy of trying to talk directly to as many parents as we could. We still posted up adverts of events and wrote things in the newsletter – but lots of parents weren’t engaging with the adverts or the newsletter – so it was much better (although time-consuming) to focus on face-to-face communication. So, to do that we:
- Bought bright red PTA aprons (the school colour is red), emblazoned with the PTA logo which we wear for every event. We would wear them and go and stand at the school gate to chat to people and remind them about events. It was much easier with the apron, because we looked official. Plus, it hammered home the idea that the PTA were busy and active.
- Held a coffee morning once a term, with free tea and coffee, as an opportunity to get to know as many parents as possible.
- Brought free tea and coffee to parents’ evenings, to give to the parents (as a way-in to having a chat with them while they were waiting for their slot).
- We also decided that we would take the emphasis off ‘raising money’ and focus on connecting with people. So, for an event like the Summer Fair, we didn’t concentrate on what we were raising money to do, we talked about parents having a fun experience with their children. We are planning to talk more about how PTA events enrich the children’s experience, for example, with the Mother’s Day Gift Sale (children choose a little gift costing anything between 50p and £3 for their mums), we talked about what the event would teach the kids. They’d be handling money; making a choice; building their confidence; learning about speaking and listening… We hope that approach will give parents a better sense of the value of these events.
- The school prints stickers to remind parents that an event is on. For example, on the day before a cake sale all the children in KS1 would get a sticker saying, ‘Cake sale tomorrow!’. It was an easy, visible reminder for parents and it meant we were given more cakes and we sold more cakes.
- We thought about ways of making it easy for people to volunteer. For some people that meant finding jobs that could be done at home, in their own time. So, we bagged up gifts that needed wrapping (for example, for the Mother’s Day Sale) and parents would come and pick them up from school and take them home to wrap them there. For our Science Fair we told parents explicitly that we would give them training. That gave them the confidence to take the job on. So we are now starting a buddy system for other events so that every new volunteer can be paired with someone who has done the event before.
This year, we’ve signed up to Classlist, which was a prompt to set up a Class Rep system, which has become another way of building community. Classlist is also helpful for building links with parents who don’t often come to the school gates and who can’t make PTA meetings. For example, we have had a good response to posting PTA minutes on Classlist, or asking people to respond to discussion questions, even if they can’t come to a meeting.
So, what would you say to other PTAs who need parents to get involved?
It takes time – keep plugging away! The things that really help are:
- Having a core group of six or seven committed people. With this number, the jobs feel manageable.
- PTA aprons. This is a quick way to make the PTA (and PTA members) much more visible.
- Classlist. An easy, reliable way of staying on top of your contact list and reaching out to all parents.