Every teacher has faced an empty chair at parents’ evening. That still, quiet moment when the parent you most wanted to see, but who failed to appear, can live long in the memory in the weeks that follow.
It is one of the quandaries of being a teacher: the parents you need to become positively involved with you are the very same ones who seldom make meaningful connections with their child’s school. We know that positive engagement really matters to children’s development and success: research suggests that, at primary school, the impact of different levels of parental involvement can prove even more significant than the variation in quality between schools (Desforges, 2003; bit.ly/Desforges).
Given the importance of positive parental involvement, how then do we overcome the dismal prophecy of the empty chair?
So-called hard-to-reach parents, whose children are often similarly hard to teach, are a typical source of teacher frustration. The reasons for disengagement are complex and can harden over time if they are not tackled early.
We know that many parents view school in adversarial terms, having had bad experiences during their own time at school. Memories of failure or punishment can leave parents unwilling to make any positive contact with their child’s school; seeing it as the enemy, they may cut off communication completely.
Exacerbating the situation further is pressure on time due to work and family commitments (research commonly cites this as the chief issue raised by parents). As such, any first step to boost engagement must start with a plan to increase the scope and flexibility of parents to positively engage with us.
Another issue is our own bias and preconceptions. Research in 2010 for the Department for Education, by Janet Goodall et al (bit.ly/ParentalReview), revealed that teachers can too often make assumptions about parents and their apparent lack of involvement in supporting their child, or their perceived failure to reinforce school policies on behaviour and homework. The researchers recommended a “parental needs analysis along with understanding what parents already do with their children”. For example, for some parents, weak literacy skills can seriously hinder effective communication. With about one-in-five children in English schools having English as a second language, there is a strong likelihood that many parents want to help but need more targeted support with which to do so.
Then we come to another recommendation made in Goodall’s review: teachers need training, too, if they are to communicate well with parents. A familiar refrain is often sounded after recommendations for more training: how can we afford it and where can we find time to better bridge such engagement between home and school?
That question probably needs to be addressed at a systemic level, but perhaps we are missing productive opportunities to communicate and work positively – in ways that are cheap, quick and easy – with parents. For example, an intriguing parental engagement research project involving nearly 16,000 children, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation, showed that texting parents about upcoming tests and homework had a positive impact on maths and English attainment, as well as absenteeism (bit.ly/TextParents). So how come such a quick, easy method of communication appears to be making such a difference? It seems that the immediacy of a text message nudge is seen by busy parents as being a more accessible way to engage.
This project should prompt us to ask hard questions about our own engagement efforts: would a phone call be more effective than a parents’ evening? Do our time-consuming attempts to host special sessions with parents prove well meaning, but ineffective?
Teachers know that technology can be tricky to get right in schools, but increasingly we are beginning to recognise how it can help make vital connections with pupils’ home lives. Technology-based projects have included the making of videos for parents about how literacy and numeracy are taught in school (Feiler, 2006). Meanwhile, the roll-out of apps for communicating with parents, sharing images of students’ work and sending regular messages about progress has been rapid. These solutions are not a silver bullet for the complex issues addressed above, but they may provide ways in which we can begin to reach parents who have so far proved elusive.
We do need a caveat here: the assumption that increased parental engagement with school is always a positive force needs to be complicated a little. We can rightly bemoan the “empty chair effect”, but recent research by Murayama et al (2016), entitled Don’t aim too high for your kids: parental overaspiration undermines students’ learning in mathematics (bit.ly/DoNotAimTooHigh), has confirmed that parents with unrealistically high aspirations for their children may go on to damage their academic performance. The stereotypical “tiger parent” – who has been heralded and criticised in equal measure – may well prove damaging to children’s school success. As much as teachers struggle with the empty chair at parents’ evening, other, more demanding parents can make the experience uncomfortable and challenging for even the most hardened veterans among us.
There are some useful tools out there to help teachers to deal with pugnacious parents (such as this 2009 framework for “structured conversations”, published by the government, bit.ly/StructuredConversations), but a negative experience can leave long-lasting damage for all parties.
Perhaps that is a topic for another feature. Here, our aim is to try to engage with those parents that we do not see enough. Yes, it is complex and yes, we need more assistance and time to make headway into the problems. But we can do a lot right now, too. If we can regularly and effectively communicate with parents in a way that is easy and accessible, then perhaps that is the key to getting parental engagement right.
Alex Quigley is director of Huntington Research School and author of The Confident Teacher. He tweets @HuntingEnglish