‘Where are the other parents? Is this school an orphanage?’ I have heard these comments regularly as dedicated parent-helpers wonder why other parents are not at the fete or working bee or canteen. It’s hard not to sympathise. After all, some parents come to everything while others stay at home regardless of what is on.

Yet, when you think about it, not all of these parents stay away simply because they lack commitment to the school or because they are lazy. Many have legitimate reasons for refusing to become involved. For some, the reasons are historical – their own experience of school was unpleasant and they see no need to repeat this unpleasantness. For some, it is cultural – they have cultural practices that prevent their going out alone at night to attend meetings. For some, it is a case of illiteracy – they lack the skills needed for a task but don’t want to expose their inadequacies. For some it is a case of being too shy or too poor or too uneducated to go out with a group of parents who have no such failings.

On reflection, many parents have legitimate excuses for not attending our functions and we must honour these excuses. Just as some of us don’t go to the opera or to football matches or to land auctions, some of us don’t go to school. You and I might regret this lack of participation in something we clearly value, but the nature of mankind means that some things appeal to some, while others things appeal to others.

Personally, I am glad that some people attend opera, some attend football matches and some people attend land auctions – because these all have their value in our society and I wouldn’t like to see them disappear. However if you invited me to any of them, I’d politely refuse.
There is another group, however, who don’t come to our school events – and they have a different reason. The reason is that no-one has ever invited them. Now, before you start to roll you eyes and mentally rehearse the seven invitations that you have issued in the past 12 months, let me explain a little more.

When I say ‘No-one has invited them’ I don’t mean that nobody tried to invite them. As a principal I have bent over backwards to try to involve the uninvolved, often without the slightest success. Surely no-one could say that I didn’t invite them. Well, the truth is that I did invite them but my invitation didn’t get through to its audience.

Let’s look at a simple example of this miscommunication.

Years ago, someone told staff at a certain embassy in Canberra that I was interested in the culture of that particular country, and I was invited to a cultural evening hosted by the Ambassador. In truth, I had no knowledge about – and hence no interest in – this particular culture and so I declined. If the invitation had come three years later, by which time I had started to develop a real interest in this particular culture (for reasons that don’t really matter here) I would have leapt at the chance to go. However, when the invitation came, it didn’t connect with me in any way. I suggest that the same is true of many of the invitations we send. Our invitations don’t make the connections.

Do we send invitations to social events to parents who are working so hard to make ends meet that they wouldn’t dream of spending 20 dollars to chat with people they don’t know and possibly don’t like?
Have we asked people to attend a working bee to clean up the school when these same people don’t have the energy to clean up their own front yard? Or asking people to sell raffle tickets for an interstate trip when they can’t find the time to travel to the next suburb to see a dentist?

Make them welcome
I suggest that we often mismatch our invitations because we don’t know our audience. This is a vicious circle because unless they occasionally respond to an invitation, we will never get to know them. However, it should at least caution us to recognise that when people stay away from our functions, it might not be because they are lazy or lack interest.

How, then, do we reach these people – if indeed they are reachable? One suggestion is to challenge every parent in the school to attend just one function a year, and provide them with an annual commitment chart. It would include working bees, reading mums, canteen helpers, assorted meetings, sport transportation, and so on. The idea is to offer such a smorgasbord of events that almost everyone could find something that appeals to them.

If the chart contains photos of people doing those tasks in previous years, the nature of the activity should be clear to anyone who sees it even if they don’t read too well. If each task has a number of contact names, it might be easier for the shy people to find someone they have at least heard of. Further embellishment of such a commitment chart could easily be developed by the faithful band that does attend lots of activities – and if they try this ‘broader brush’ approach, their gripes might be reduced as they see others take up part of the load.

Dennis Sleigh is a writer and school principal. His column appears in every issue of Education Today