Parents make the difference

I recently came across an interesting research paper* into the impact of parental involvement on children's achievement and adjustment. It confirmed my long-held belief that "differences in parental involvement have a much bigger impact on achievement than differences associated with the effects of school in the primary age range."

Don Ledingham

Research has shown that parental involvement has a more significant effect than schools on children's achievement and adjustment, even after other factors (such as social class, maternal education and poverty) have been taken out of the equation.

It's worth unpicking that assertion further to understand the implications of such a seemingly innocent statement - which, to all intents and purposes, has the power to undermine the edifice of the schooling process. For what research seems to be revealing is that the education system can do little to impact on the achievements of a child beyond that which can be more accurately predetermined by the extent and quality of parental involvement in the child's development. There would be five inter- connected challenges:

1. Quality of education provided by the school

2. Extent to which parents are equipped to provide the level of home support which makes the difference;

3. Variation in parents' home circumstances, affecting how much they can contribute to their child's education.

4. Quality of communication with parents to establish a constructive partnership;

5. Extent to which parents are equipped actively to engage with their child's school.

The problem facing schools is that research has also shown that top-down intervention projects, aimed at "fixing" parents, are inevitably doomed to failure. The deficit approach of "we are the educationalists and we'll show you how to educate your child" serves to do no more than get up the noses of those whom we set out to help. What has been proven to work are approaches which establish an equitable partnership with parents and carers, creating an environment where parents spontaneously become involved in the child's development.

Could a school create an environment dedicated to the educational process as a true partnership in the education of the child? There would be many elements involving the use of technology to open up classrooms, different forms of parental interaction, and a shift in the balance of responsibility for involvement from the school to the parents (I'm not advocating schools abdicate responsibility for this area - just shift the balance).

Accompanying such a shift could be the creation of a buddy scheme where a parent who's been through the system would link with a less experienced parent to provide support. The key to success would lie in valuing the existing family strengths so that we don't don't set out to "fix" them because they don't conform to what we believe is the "correct" way to bring up kids.

Obviously such an approach is fraught with difficulties and training would be required. But I don't see this approach only being of benefit to those families regarded as "vulnerable". Many parents would benefit from the support of someone "who's been this way before".

Above all, such an approach shifts the existing power relationship where it is the school or the authority which set out to develop parental partnership strategies. My model involves the community setting out to support itself.

* The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: A Literature Review, C Desforges and A Abouchaar, 2003

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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Don Ledingham

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