Community organising: a case study in parent engagement

Widening participation in higher education and improving the education journeys of young people cannot happen in isolation, writes Michael Bennett. Here, he outlines a programme that connects parents, community groups and the university

Michael Bennett's avatar
King’s College London
7 Dec 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Community meeting

You may also like

What parents need to succeed in academia and how universities can help
4 minute read
Recommendations for support measures universities could put in place to support working parents among their staff

On a rainy Saturday morning in November, 35 parents gathered at King’s College London to plan their strategy for the 2024 London mayoral election. This meeting was part of a London-wide project to secure commitments from the mayoral candidates in advance of polling day. The parents are part of a King’s College London access initiative called Parent Power and they were discussing a lack of both affordable housing and mental health support and the closure of youth clubs to name a few targets of their collective anger.

You might be confused.

How does this relate to higher education or to university access?

Well, Parent Power was first set up six years ago. The idea was to train parents to become experts in accessing higher education and to enable parents to build the power to break down the barriers that stopped their children from thriving. In that time, they’ve got universities to fund travel to open days, lobbied local mental health trusts to invest in parent mental health, and even changed national immigration rules to make it easier for children to secure British citizenship.

These actions go far beyond the usual remit of a university widening-participation team, but that’s the point. Widening participation to higher education, improving the education journeys of young people, cannot happen in isolation.

The challenge with engaging parents with higher education, particularly those parents from under-represented communities, is that every parent has a different starting point. Every parent’s experience of education is unique, as is their understanding of the UK education system. We want to meet them where they’re at, to listen to the needs of parents today, and not just their future needs or expectations. We want parents to gain not just expertise in higher education but also skills in leadership and to have the confidence and knowledge to support their children in making the best choices.

Parent Power is a parental engagement programme delivered in partnership with community organising charity Citizens UK. It uses community-organising methods to organise and train local parents, enabling them to become university access experts in their local communities, while also giving them the tools to start campaigns for educational equality. Community organising means building collective power to effect change, overcome social injustice and build community. At the heart of Citizens UK is helping people turn their anger into change. 

Four elements for success in community engagement

What techniques make the Parent Power programme work?

1. Connect with parents through relational one-to-ones

A relational one-to-one is a 30- to 40-minute meeting with the intention to connect meaningfully with another person and understand who they are and what they care about. We use relational one-to-ones to find out more about the parents we work with and understand any gaps in their knowledge. This helps us to tailor sessions for maximum impact on things that matter to them most.

2. Build community leaders

Run sessions that give parents a chance to hear about Citizens UK campaigns and how to get involved, with an emphasis on learning and developing leadership skills. Create a committee of parents. Give each parent a role and form working parties within the committee based on the interests of the parents. Once a parent has been on Parent Power for one year, they will be an expert in higher education and will be able to share their knowledge and insight with other parents. They will also have ownership over the direction they would like the group to go in.

3. Storytelling: sharing stories from people who have overcome injustice and won change

Parent-to-parent advice has been at the centre of our meetings. It allows parents to share experiences that will inspire others. Most recently, parents heard from a mother who had advocated for herself and her child and effected changes in the staffing in her child’s nursery after instances of racism. This gave parents insight into steps taken to create change and that their voice holds the power to create change. We also create a space for King’s students to tell their stories, which allows parents to ask questions and hear first-hand experiences about life at university from students from a similar background to their children.

4. Start a listening campaign

A listening campaign is a focused effort to build community and identify concerns and priorities. Last year, Parent Power took part in South London Listens, a Citizens UK campaign to listen to 6,000 people on the issue of mental health who answered the question: what is stopping your community from thriving? Parents told us it was the first time they felt as if their voices were heard, giving them the confidence to speak to key decision-makers about issues that matter in their community. 

Overall, what should you take away from this article?

  • Get listening.
  • Get involved in a local campaign.
  • Speak to partner schools and run welcome sessions with parents.
  • Make your meetings less formal – fewer PowerPoints, more conversations.
  • Have relational one-to-ones with parents to find out what they need and want.

Michael Bennett is associate director of social mobility and widening participation in the department of social mobility and widening participation at King’s College London.

King’s College London’s Parent Power programme has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community category in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023 #THEAwards. Click here to see the full list of shortlisted candidatesThe awards will be presented at a ceremony in Liverpool on 7 December.

Academics and university leaders from across the UK and Ireland will come together on 6-7 December at THE Campus Live UK&IE to talk about institutional strategies, teaching and learning, the student experience and more. Join us for this two-day event in Liverpool.

If you’d like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site