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Schools with Roots – Pedagogy and Practice

At Maslaha, on our Schools with Roots project, we’ve been working closely with teachers and families to help primary schools develop sustainable anti-racist practice to better engage with their families and local communities.


We believe, and indeed research has shown[1], that improving community engagement in schools, and linking pupil’s heritage and lived experienced to their learning, will have a positive impact on children’s outcomes at school and help them to become confident, reflective learners and engaged active citizens.


Racism is deeply ingrained in all levels of society, including within the school system, and it takes active work from all of us not to be complicit. Inevitably, structural racism exists in schools, regardless of the intentions of individual teachers. As the 2020 Runnymede report on Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools [2] noted, there are many ways that racism manifests in secondary schools, from uniform and exclusion policies, to teachers having low expectations of pupils based on their cultural or class backgrounds, to a Eurocentric curriculum that doesn’t reflect (and therefore devalues) the lives and cultures of students of colour.


We also know low levels of trust exist between schools and local families and communities. The government’s counter extremism Prevent policy, to give an example, has created a sense of fear and alienation among Muslim communities. Muslim families are aware that consciously or unconsciously they are seen under a veil of suspicion at school because of Prevent, under which 1000’s of Muslim children have been wrongfully referred.


In terms of staffing, at least in inner city areas, teaching bodies and senior leadership are often not representative of the local communities the schools serve. According to the Department for Education in 2018 nearly 92% of teachers in England’s state- funded schools were white and only 3% of head teachers were from ‘ethnic minority’ backgrounds.[3] This is a trend exacerbated by fast-track teacher training programmes which often bring newly trained teachers in to cities such as Manchester, London and Birmingham from smaller cities, towns or rural areas - perhaps having never had contact with the communities they are working with.


It is vital, then, that schools take action to become anti-racist spaces. Teachers need to recognise the power they hold in perpetuating institutional oppression and make the classroom a place where student’s cultural differences, languages, stories, and histories are not erased, but valued. Teachers can play a vital role in creating environments where children have the opportunity to thrive and feel safe and thinking about how to engage with families and the local community is a vital starting point.


A big difference between primary and secondary schools is that parents are a lot more present in primary schools - there is daily family contact with school usually twice a day. How schools engage with families, then, has a huge sway on the experience of a child in primary school. Indeed, research shows that parents’ interest and involvement in their children’s learning is consistently associated with positive outcomes for children of all age groups and there is an established link between the home learning environment at all ages and children’s performance at school. However - most schools say that they do not have an explicit plan for how they work with parents, and fewer than 10% of teachers have undertaken training on parental engagement.[4]


On our Schools with Roots project at Maslaha, we work with schools to recognise the learning and knowledge that lives outside of the classroom, in the community, and value the day-to- day experiences of students as an important part of the learning process. This includes teachers understanding the contexts of where students come from, taking time to get to know the local communities in which they teach. If they don’t know and understand the local community, how can they make learning relevant to pupils' lives and build trust with families?


Our pedagogy is centred around three key areas: context, family involvement and community engagement.

Context – learning should resonate with and reflect the realities of pupils’ local context, heritage and home life. 

Family involvement – parents and carers should have the opportunity to meaningfully input into classroom learning.  Communities feel valued, with a greater sense of belonging for pupils and parents, and a co-creation of knowledge that is socially, culturally relevant to pupil’s lives.

Community engagement – local communities are a rich resource that can bring learning to life for pupils. Schools and teachers should work to engage with local community assets as much as possible.


In order to put this pedagogy into practice, schools first need to address the issue of why some parents or families might feel intimidated or not confident engaging with school. Through our work with families and communities on Schools with Roots we know that for some parents their own negative experiences of school as children can impact this, as can harmful or negative experiences of other institutions such as local councils or the police. For many parents, language is a huge barrier to engaging with school. Some parents feel judged or patronized by staff and, in particular, we have heard from families who, due to precarious work, insecure housing, immigration status, or complications with physical and mental health, aren’t able to engage with school in the way they would like, but who at the same time don’t feel able to talk to their school about this, due to a lack of trust.  


No two schools or local communities will be the same, and we work with schools to actively get to know their parents, carers and families and to engage with them in genuinely non-judgemental ways. This includes asking some important questions about communication between schools and families.


It is also important to have a number of ways that parents can engage with school and not just one point of contact. We’ve often seen how having limited points of contact, for example, the front office, or a parent liaison worker, can shut down communication for parents and lead to ‘gatekeeping’.


We ask schools to consider how they communicate information to families, ideally through simple text and graphics as opposed to long letters or emails that parents who don’t speak English will not understand. We work with schools to develop multi-lingual resources that that are accessible and engaging.


We also work with schools to embed practices and strategies into the classroom that help teachers engage parents and families with learning. One of these strategies is Community Mapping. Community mapping involves local communities building up a multi-layered picture of what it is like to live in their area. It can be a useful way of helping schools understand more about the everyday lives, interests and routines of the families of pupils, and to mobilise parents to get more involved at school, share expertise, meet new people and potentially be introduced to new things in their local area. This could be exploring using a traditional map format, but also through all sorts of other creative mediums. For example we created a zine Our Forest Gate Stories as part of a community mapping project with families and a school in Newham, this provided a platform for parents from marginalised communities to tell their life stories and journeys in their own terms.


Another Schools with Roots strategy is Topics Together. This is an approach to curriculum that engages parents in the planning of topics and provides an entry point for their continued involvement during the course of a topic. This involves family ‘think-in’ sessions where parents come in to meet with their child’s teacher before each topic begins, with a focus on creating a peer-peer environment that isn’t hierarchical or intimidating – the idea is to have a knowledge exchange as opposed to the teacher telling parents what the pupils will be learning. Topics Together has allowed families who have never engaged with school to have a say in their child’s learning and to have a greater voice in schools.


Finally, our approach incorporates anti-racism training with teachers, going beyond talking about diversity in the representational sense, but rather focusing on systemic change. We believe that if teachers cannot discard individual narratives and understand racism as a structure - then they will continue to see racism as an act from an ‘immoral’ individual and will be unable to critically reflect to see themselves or their schools as racist. In our anti-racism work with teachers, we look at the ways in which racism, power, and privilege operate systemically in society and in schools.


We have seen over the last year the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black and brown communities, highlighting longstanding inequalities in health, housing, education and employment, and shining a damning light on structural racism in the UK.


We know that school closures have widened the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Effective parental engagement will be more important than ever in mitigating the extent to which the gap widens and to compensate for lost learning – this means schools really grappling with what an anti-racist approach to family engagement looks like.


In a time when many vital community spaces and resources such as parks, community centres and libraries have been lost due to austerity, disproportionately impacting marginalised communities, primary schools remain a place where parents regularly interact and have the potential to play an important role as a space of community care.


In this context, how schools communicate with families matters more than ever. 


Emily Mason
Emily Mason is a Senior Project Manager at Maslaha, working on Schools with Roots. She recently produced the documentary film Nobody's Metaphor (which follows the experience of a group of year 8 and 9 students on Maslaha’s Muslim Girls Fence project). Previously, Emily worked as a historian with a specific interest in civil society and grass roots activism - as a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics European Institute, and teaching modern British history at King's College, London and the University of East London. Her book, Democracy Deeds and Dilemmas, examines the response to the Spanish Civil War within British civil society.

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If you would like to hear Emily, and her colleague Latifa, chatting more about the Schools with Roots project, you can listen to our podcast with them both here

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