How secondaries can build better links with parents

After studying why parental engagement can diminish in secondary school, this teacher has some helpful insights to share

Chris Jordan

FE and skills: Why theory must come first in vocational education

During a recent master's module in educational leadership with the UCL Institute of Education, where I am studying, we were asked to reflect on the ways in which school leaders could develop and maintain learning communities.

My eventual focus centred on one of the more neglected partnerships of secondary school life; that between the teacher and the parent. 

In order to satisfy the course’s assignment, I elected to combine the extant literature with the idea that teachers may be able to boost parental involvement in their secondary son or daughter’s education through an introduction to cognitive load theory, retrieval practice and interleaving.

Engaging parents in secondary school learning

After the reading, writing, experimentation within my own context and conversations with parents that followed, here is what I found to be most interesting and useful: 

1. The dynamic between student, parent and school changes in secondary

This is best understood in contrast with primary school classes; the parent has only one point of contact and that same teacher oversees approximately 30 students.

Moving up to secondary, lessons splinter into anywhere between eight and 15 subjects. The new teachers could be responsible for around 180 students, whom they see on a semi-regular basis.

Alongside this evolution, research shows that pupils become steadily more and more ambivalent about parents being involved with school life, and take this new opportunity to establish a strict distance between mum, dad and their middle-school teachers.

Each of these elements quickly combines to give the respective impressions that many parents are aloof and the child’s new teachers are unattainably busy.

2. Parents lose faith – but are keen to help

Unless teachers or subject specialists themselves, most parents cite the main reason for not being more involved as being insecure about secondary content.

Desforges notes that, in reference to a study of parents’ habits, “71 per cent with year 1 children claimed to help with every piece of homework. This dropped to 5 per cent by year 11”.

Much has been done to establish what good parental intervention looks like. Hill et al found that this is “parents’ communication of their expectations for achievement and value for education...discussing learning strategies with children, and making preparations and plans for the future” (Hill et al, 2009).

While a useful elaboration, I wanted a concrete example of how this might manifest itself in my context. 

3. Discussing learning strategies with students and parents does help

Is it possible then for parents to understand and implement cognitive load theory, retrieval practice and interleaving at home?

Yes – well, mostly.

My experimentation was limited to a handful of upper secondary classes. The intervention was introduced through Zoom calls with all parents from each respective class, at which time I explained the three strategies in detail.

This consisted of a PowerPoint presentation in which I outlined how and when they could be integrated into home life, as well as providing materials in the form of knowledge organisers and online flashcards.

My advice was that family members practice with one-third of the flashcards every other day for 15 minutes so that their daughter or son’s cognitive load would be lessened during class time. I created three decks and shared these with students and parents on Chegg.

With Chegg, a flashcard app available on most phones, wrong answers are automatically saved as such and can therefore be reviewed first the next type you return to the deck.

Should a certain element repeatedly receive wrong answers, I suggested consulting the knowledge organiser together to ascertain what was misunderstood or forgotten.

With each class having three decks of flashcards, parents were encouraged to interleave them so that each deck was practised once or twice a week at most.

After just two weeks, I noticed that my respective class’ recall for information regarding topics such as Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was noticeably increased compared with past cohorts.

After the six- to eight-week schemes of work were over, I canvassed the experiences of each family with the instruction that they be brutally honest about their utilisation and feelings for the intervention.

I was overjoyed to see that parents felt far more secure in their confidence to offer meaningful help and gauge their children’s appreciation for the knowledge needed in class.

Admittedly, some stated that they let other commitments get in the way of involving themselves as often as they would have liked, but also echoed the enjoyment they had experienced at being able to lend a meaningful hand

4. Caveats and considerations moving forwards…

It was an exhilarating experience to hear secondary parents from a multitude of ages, ethnicities and levels of English talk about seemingly being re-engaged with their children's learning.

Yet the long-term success of any such intervention could well be tempered by any number of variables.

Returning to the research, using robust strategies such as CLT, retrieval practice and interleaving also requires a thorough appreciation of how to set up and maintain such an approach at class, department or institutional level. 

This begins with parental involvement being built into the initial planning phase of the organisation’s coming academic year. In addition, sustained support for teachers being expected to carry out the task in the form of focused training is key.

On top of this, parental involvement at all levels of the organisation’s ‘"nitial needs analysis" through to the final review should also be planned for intensively (Desforges, 2003).

What can prove most challenging is the disparate nature of cultural attitudes held within the international school setting.

What might be the reality for one class or department can vary depending on the cross-section of societal mores held by those at home. Hence the need for parental feedback at each stage of implementation. 

Anyone interested in finding out more about the collective wisdom of parental relationships with school should explore the work of Joyce Epstein and Charles Desforges, who provide a fantastic starting point. 

Chris Jordan is head of secondary English at an international school in Hong Kong, where he has worked for eight years

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