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'Getting parents to engage with their kids' education must become a national priority'

Ministers spend billions tinkering with education – but do little to boost parental engagement, says charity director

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Ministers spend billions tinkering with education – but do little to boost parental engagement, says charity director

In my recent conversations with headteachers, one issue has cropped up repeatedly: growing problems with engaging parents in their child’s education. Most people understand that, on some level, parents are an integral part of a child’s education – and this commonsense intuition is supported by evidence.

Professor Charles Desforges, professor of education at the University of Exeter and expert on parental engagement, found that parental involvement can account for a huge part of the variance in educational outcomes (up to 30 per cent), significantly more than differences in schools (around 5 per cent).

Yet while the government continues to focus heavily on tinkering with the education system, spending huge amounts of money overturning school structures, changing exams and tweaking performance measures in pursuit of better outcomes, the world of policy and research pays precious little attention to driving evidence-based practice in meaningful parental engagement. Hence, we have little in the way of robust, longitudinal studies showing what works and what doesn’t in this regard.

This doesn’t mean, however, that school leaders should shy away from talking about the impact of parenting and looking at what they can do to help parents work better with their children at home. We do have some indications of best practice, such as Ofsted’s 2011 review of parental engagement, that show how schools have varying degrees of success when tackling this difficult issue. Too often, it is the pupils in greatest need of support who receive the least support at home.

We focus on the importance of transition from primary to secondary phases for pupils, but there is also a need to consider the disengagement that can occur parentally as well.

Parents 'bearing scars'

One issue is that, almost exclusively for secondaries, some parents bear the scars of their own negative experiences of secondary education. In some cases, I have heard of parents actually refusing to cross the school threshold after their experience there  – even when the school is an entirely new building (and sometimes even has a new name).

At primary level, while parents do tend to be much more engaged than they are in secondaries, many are struggling with the challenge of a tougher new curriculum. Heads have fed back to us about parents having difficulties with the demands of literacy in Year 5 and numeracy in Year 3.

Engagement also extends to parents' choices prior to their children starting school. Heads in schools with early years settings are increasingly reporting declining language skills at age 3, with the interference of mobile telephony and tablets impacting on language acquisition and oracy in those crucial formative years.

The issue of parental engagement is not unique to the North East. It needs to become a national priority.

All parents need to see education as the key to a bright future for their children, not as something to be feared or ignored. In the North East, we have some positive initiatives, such as the Read North East campaign, which has brought a range of literacy-based organisations, Schools NorthEast and the National Literacy Trust together to focus initiatives to get parents, particularly in deprived communities, to read with their children more.

However, schemes like this are not enough on their own. Greater focus is needed in this area to better distil and disseminate adoptable and evidence-based practice across the system to enable those crucial partnerships between schools and parents.

The Schools NorthEast Summit will be taking place in Newcastle on 12 October. To book your place, head to

Mike Parker is the director of Schools NorthEast

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