Where have the Parents Gone?
Leanne Edmistone | QWeekend Magazine | Courier Mail | May 7-8 2016.
A discussion on parent engagement in school committees. (You can click on each article image to enlarge it or continue to read below)
It’s a glorious cacophony of excited kids running from ride to ride, the reptile show to animal farm, face painter to the temporary tattoo artist, and round again, psychedelic hairstyles signalling time already spent at the Crazy Hair stall.
This sugar-fuelled whirlwind is the backdrop for coffee-fortified family, friends and neighbours who bargain hunt among plant, book and handicraft stalls, filling baskets with homemade cakes and sweets, before sitting on a hay bale to enjoy lunch and live music at the annual school fete.
From May to October, similar scenes are repeated in school grounds across Queensland as parents celebrate their community and strive to raise funds to air-condition classrooms, equip sports teams or upgrade technology. But for how much longer? The writing is on the wall for school fetes, which are being downsized, only run every second year or being replaced by fundraising levies.
For Federation of Parents and Friends Queensland executive director Carmel Nash, who oversees the Catholic education sector, and her state-school counterpart, Kevan Goodwirth, chief executive of Parents and Citizens Queensland, the loss of fetes themselves is not as big a concern as what it represents. The loss of parents.
The morning I meet with Nash in her inner-city Brisbane office, she has just taken a phone call from a principal wanting advice after their P&C failed to attract a nomination for president, vice-president or secretary. It’s a common dilemma. Attracting and retaining parent volunteers, particularly for these vital year-round roles, is the number one issue Queensland’s estimated 300 Catholic school communities contact Nash about.
“(P&Fs) are a bit stagnant at the moment. We have lost some (parents), yes. The groups in most cases are smaller than they used to be,” Nash says. “In my personal opinion, that’s because we haven’t evolved in the way we probably needed to. School doesn’t look like it did in the 1960s, but the P&F still does.”
It’s the same in Goodworth’s Windsor office, in Brisbane’s North, where he and his small team work to support volunteer state president Gayle Waters, her executive and parent groups in 1236 state schools. “We are in places where there is not even a police station,” he says. Goodworth estimates there are five state P&Cs in caretaker mode, many where parents want to hand over the reins but can’t find a replacement, and some where parents continue in roles long after their children have left the school, all because of lack of volunteers.
The reasons are varied: more double-income families mean fewer parents are available; more extra-curricular activities for children create parental fatigue; increasingly complex responsibilities in voluntary leadership roles; generational differences in how and why people want to volunteer; and, where there are people, personality clashes can be a strong deterrent.
“People are scared…no, not scared, but people are hesitant to put their hand up because they might get in deeper than they can contribute,” says Nash, a mother of three who has been with the federation 14 years. One of nine siblings, she grew up watching her mother volunteer for various Rockhampton schools and community organisations.
Goodworth, a former secondary school principal, uses his son as a prime example of how volunteering behaviour has changed in the past 40 years. “Gen X and gen Y don’t volunteer the way characters of my age do, or did. Baby boomers tent to turn up to the monthly meetings, be elected to president or whatever. Gen X and Y volunteer episodically – like my son, he’s an engineer, they need a drain, he goes in, builds a drain and then goes home. He doesn’t want to go to meetings.” he says. “It’s a constant struggle to keep some of out P&Cs vibrant with membership, so we’ve got to become relevant to them and we’ve got to be assitance to them.”
Traditionally, parent executives – president, vice president, treasurer and secretary – host monthly night-time meetings with the principal and other interested parents to discuss a range of issues. Responsible not only for working on student’s educational needs, policy issues, staffing levels and their school development plan, they also oversee the running of the school tuckshop and the uniform shop, which themselves can fall victim to parent shortages, as well as fundraising ventures to resource their school.
“P&Cs are increasingly running quite complex businesses. We’ve got one school running three cafeterias with (an annual) turnover of $2 million. About 600 of our P&Cs employ people. They are running swimming clubs, they are running out-of-hours school care, they are running robotics tutoring after school,” says Goodworth.
P&C groups contribute about $10.1 million and $370,000 in-kind support (such as asset donations) to state schools, according to the Queensland Department of Education and Training. This represents about 1.4 per cent of total funding schools receive, the rest coming from state and federal governments. Nash quotes the MySchool website when saying parents contributed $3.1 billion or 29 per cent of income at Catholic schools nationally in 2014 through fees and fundraising.
The loss of parent volunteers is a national issue. A NSW government survey of 2200 volunteers late last year found parents were struggling with volunteer fatigue, needed more people to help at school and in sporting groups, and wanted better recognition. What the future holds is the focus for the Queensland organisations’ respective conferences this year – the P&F Federation’s was last weekend and P&Cs Queensland’s is in Gladstone in September.
“I want to hear what parents this needs to happen, what they think will work. That’s what this is about for us: how do we better build parent engagement and that parent voice? How do they fit together?” says Nash. “Now that’s not going to happen in a weekend, but what we’re going to get is the bones of what people think, and then go forward… and build on that.”
The bottom line for the Goodworth and Nash is meeting the needs of students and their community. Both cite research and experience, which clearly shows parental involvement in schools is crucial for students. “Kids seeing their parents volunteering is crucial. It’s all about the message: we care about what you’re doing, we care about your school, community is important,” says Nash.
Mandy Weidmann is an unapologetic champion of the community-building benefits of fetes. Known as The Fundraising Whisperer, Weidmann, 42, has spent 10 years advising schools, sporting and community groups how to get the most out of their events.
It all started in 2005 when the former lawyer met another Brisbane mother, Helen Creswick, and they created the Fundraising Directory, an annual supplier directory sent free to schools and community groups together with a website of helpful resources.
Creswick passed away after a short battle with pancreatic cancer in 2008, the same year the pair’s work won them an Australian Business Award, and Weidmann has since gone on to grow the Directory, which now has more than 25,000 subscribers.
She wrote The Practical Fundraising Handbook, created Fete-in-a-box, a free, comprehensive how-to-guide downloaded more than 700 times nationally, and later this year will launch Australia’s first national fete research project. “As a community builder alone, if you take the money out of it, fetes are really important and my personal view is I’d like to see schools run them every year because the kids really do love them,” says Weidmann, a mum fo five who helped boost her school’s fete profit at Coorparoo State Primary from $25,000 to $100,000 in eight years.
‘The most important thing is to make it fun. Ass as many activities as possible that make it exciting for the kids… anything that makes their day great.”
Succession planning, information retention, dealing with onerous compliance requirements and volunteer engagement are the biggest issues she sees.
Weidmann encourages organisers to have a clear purpose, look for new ways to engage volunteers, try new things regularly, source sponsorship, advertise and, afterwards, inform the community of the overall benefits. Most of all, always show volunteers your appreciation.
Despite the ever-present challenges, Weidmann is confident a sense of community and volunteering is still valued overall.
“In the past year some pretty well-known bloggers have said, don’t ask me to bake cakes, I’m just too busy, but (the work) still happens. As much as we complain about it, we still do it and we still get some benefit from it. We might despair at feeling not as connected as we once did – and I think there are ways to incrementally chip away at that – but if something goes wrong, you see people falling over themselves to step in and help. I don’t despair at our lack of community at all, but maybe (that’s because) I see a lot of it.”
The approach that associations take to membership has to. adapt to survive the “perfect storm of colliding generational, economic and cultural forces”, according to Brisbane-based membership consultant Belinda Moore.
Moore is managing director of Strategic Membership Solutions, which offers support to association, charities and community organisations to attract, train and retain members. A mum and stepmum of four, Moore has run fetes, volunteered with parent groups and turned her local Neighbourhood Watch group around, while establishing a career helping professional, sporting, environmental and not-for-profit groups attract and retain members, and remain financially viable. She recently released her free e-book, The Membership Managers’ Handbook.
Moore says P&C and P&F organisations have one distinct advantage, especially when it comes to attracting fickle gen X and gen Y volunteers. “The power of a parent’s love for their child and their desire to interfere in anything that is going to impact on their development will guarantee the future of parent groups, because parents will always want to have a say. But whether (P&Cs) just bob along or whether they rise to achieve great things, well that’s yet to be seen.”
Moore names several basic principles in running an organisation: know your purpose, clearly define success, identify measurable objectives, establish time frames for achieving those objectives, investigate funding options and clearly communicate a variety of specific ways people can get involved, rather than expecting them to attend meetings. Importantly, celebrate your successes and show appreciation fo volunteers’ efforts.
“There still needs to be someone in charge but you don’t all need to sit on a committee to get a job done. There’s statistics to show that less than 8 per cent of people would ever do that: she says, “The models of engagement are the same now for P&Cs as they were 40 years ago, but the way people want to engage is different. I don’t know of any P&C that has the ability to Skype or FaceTime into a meeting… What about considering one of the free live-streaming services? Be cleverer about how they engage their volunteers, cleverer about how they communicate with parents and definitely how they raise their funds.
Voluntary levies, I really like, because people have got the options to volunteer or pay the levy. If someone says they can’t afford they levy but I’m happy to help organise the fete, you’ll get two bites of the cherry then – the cash flow coming in from the levy, but also a fete which serves more purpose than just a fundraiser. It’s a lovely way to build a sense of community around the school. That’s the other role that’s under-recognised – P&Cs, through organising these events, help to foster that sense of school community, above and beyond children attending each day.”
You might also be interested in:
- Getting men involved in your committee
- What a P&C really does
- Position Vacant: ‘Thank You Sergeant’
- Thanking Volunteers