Parental engagement ‘terrifying’ for many families

Parents’ organisation warns that schools need a change in culture to foster meaningful parental engagement

Eileen Prior

To nurture meaningful parental engagement, schools must involve parents in decision-making, writes Eileen Prior

As the education system in Scotland gears up for major change, at Connect our focus is firmly on Learning Together – the action plan to strengthen parental engagement as part of these reforms.

In the mix of changes to come – headteachers’ charter, empowered schools, pupil voice – some may see the strengthening of this particular priority as a burden, rather than an opportunity to improve outcomes for children and young people.

Because, while the research evidence showing that parental engagement is a key contributor to positive outcomes is building, the reality in the Scottish context is that a move towards doing it effectively will demand a significant shift in practice and culture.

Let’s be clear: many schools spend a lot of time and energy on activities and events for parents. Very many professionals tell us that they know and meet parents (often the same ones) at many of these events, but fail to reach those they desperately want to have contact with. Events are organised, heads counted on attendance and the event is declared a success (or not).

Sadly, both staff and parents can take a polarised approach: those who attend and are visible in school are engaged; those who do not come are not. In the worst cases, these parents are perceived as “not being interested in their children”. Research by Dr Morag Treanor, of the University of Stirling, has demonstrated that this is very far from the truth.

Involve parents in school decisions

In other words, many schools keep talking to the same group of parents and are caught in a loop of repeating the same activities, but without thought of improvement.

What’s wrong with this approach? In the first place, setting up events and activities, then inviting parents to come into school, doesn’t scratch the surface of co-production, distributive leadership or shared decision-making. For many families, the prospect of crossing the school threshold is a terrifying one. For others, the relationship is so poor that they feel no good can come of any interaction with the school.

There are two messages we would highlight:

  • If families (and, indeed, the wider school community) are to be truly engaged, they have to be involved in deciding what will happen. Every teacher knows that active learning is a key to success with children: the news is that the same principles apply to families. Investment and ownership are critical.
  • If family and parental engagement are to have a tangible impact on outcomes for children, then all the work done to support parental engagement needs to be evaluated, and should be integral to school improvement: if the work is not improving outcomes for children, and school communities are unable to demonstrate its impact, then what is the point?

It is true that many school communities are recognising the vital importance of family engagement, of establishing a shared understanding and approach to supporting each and every child: it is what we call the “shared endeavour”.

The truth is, however, that the culture in our school communities will need to change from one that does to parents rather than with parents. We need a culture that recognises and respects the capacities of all parents.

It will no longer be sufficient for schools to point to the parent council as proof of its parental engagement: the emphasis has to move on to engaging meaningfully with the whole parent forum – all the parents and carers in a school. This will require a new approach.

Where parent confidence is low and alienation high, the old strategies will cut no ice: empowered schools will be ones where all members of the school community have a stake in its success – and in good outcomes for our young people.

Eileen Prior is executive director of Connect, a national parents' organisation in Scotland. Connect recently celebrated its 70th anniversary and offers a programme of professional learning covering areas including family engagement

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Eileen Prior

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