Parents invade teacher territory

21st August 2009 at 01:00
Parental involvement is not always welcome in the classroom

It is an increasingly fashionable idea: parents have a wealth of untapped expertise and enthusiasm, so let's get them into schools.

A cautionary tale has emerged from Aberdeen, however, where a parent-led project fuelled tensions between themselves and teachers. Parents were annoyed when their ideas were disregarded, while teachers perceived that inexpert parents were stepping on their toes.

The project centred on the Aberdeen Reading Bus, which promotes lifelong reading and aims to involve parents more in their children's learning. Money from the Scottish Action Research Fund allowed a "research mentor" to work with a group of parents at a primary school, who had chosen to investigate what motivates boys to read.

The project had clear benefits: bonds between parents strengthened; parents became more involved with other school activities; pupils were "empowered"; and parents understood better why many boys were reluctant readers.

Tensions arose, however, when the parents, enthused by their findings, tried to influence the school's approach to literacy.

Analysis by Aberdeen University honorary research fellow Kevin Stelfox, who is the city council's principal officer of research and development, and PhD student Rachel Shanks, found "little or no evidence that networks developed between parent researchers and staff at the school".

Following the research, "a tension developed between the school and the parents when the parents wanted to share their knowledge with staff at the school" and suggested alternative approaches to literacy.

"To me, the main thing is, instead of saying, `You will read this,' let them choose, and if it's non-fiction, it's non-fiction - at least they are reading," said one parent.

The same parent, whose son had become engrossed in a Marvel comic, argued that children should be allowed to read the Guinness Book of Records because it was "interesting and informative".

But this was interpreted as a "challenge to the teachers' professional knowledge about literacy and created a degree of tension which, unfortunately, was left unresolved".

In one irritable exchange, a teacher lectured a parent that failing to read at home would undermine the message that books could be fun. The parent recalled: "I promptly went into my handbag and took out my book and said, `As you can see, my book comes everywhere with me, so my children do see me reading at home.'"

Teachers believed the project had gone a "bridge too far", in the words of the Aberdeen University researchers, when parents started entering their professional territory.

They wanted a clear dividing line: "It would appear that the school was happy for the parents to be involved in activities around the school; however, this involvement was clearly defined and determined by the school.

"Engaging in open discussions about literacy that crossed over into what was perceived by the professionals as their domain was not encouraged."

The university analysts concluded that although parents' informal learning could benefit educational policy and practice, question marks remained over whether parents and teachers could learn in tandem about areas deemed within the professional domain.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, said it was important to get parents more involved in children's learning. But it fell on teachers, who knew the limits on resources and staffing, to progress parents' ideas.

"One of the difficulties of parents getting involved is that it's nearly always on the school's terms," said Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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