Teachers faced with unhelpful parents should consider whether they fit into one of three categories, a government-commissioned study suggests. It recommends tailoring advice to families, depending on whether they are "struggling through", "stepping back" or leading "separate lives" (see box).
"Struggling through" parents are fairly interested in what their child's school does, but are often very busy and not necessarily very academic. "Stepping back" parents want their children to do well but think it is up to the school to resolve issues. Those with "separate lives" want their children to be independent and could find parenting frustrating.
The study by Sherbert Research builds on an earlier report that categorised parents into nine types: comfortable and confident; committed but discontented; supportive but frustrated; relaxed and caring; family- focused; content and self-fulfilled; struggling through; stepping back; and separate lives.
Researchers said the last three groups needed extra support as they were "harder to engage". Across all three types, most felt unable to support children's academic learning beyond practicalities such as buying a computer or getting them ready for school in the mornings, and most have negative memories of their own school days.
However, they felt they supported children's learning through teaching life skills and giving emotional support.
One "separate lives" father in Nottingham described hiring a tutor for his son. "We let the school guide him on how to do his homework," he said. "I must admit, I don't get too involved. It's not my job."
The researchers emphasised that poor communication between a family and a school did not necessarily reflect on the relationship between parents and their children.
They found some parents wanted reassurance that they were helping their children in the right way; others wanted support; some wanted to know more about what went on in school. This was especially true of non-resident parents, such as those who lived apart following divorce.
When their children were at primary school, these parents were likely to advise children to leave homework if they had a problem and to check with the teacher. By secondary school, they felt redundant when it came to homework.
One "struggling through" mother said: "It's way above my head. I can barely count to 10 in French, and what they do in maths is like a foreign language."
Fathers were the most vocal when they felt schools were not putting children under pressure. Many felt uncomfortable in school and were worried about being shown up in front of their children by not being able to help, the researchers found.
The researchers also noted that parents often became emotional about bullying. They recommended holding prompt meetings at which complaints were taken seriously, as this could transform parents' view of the school.
Parents as Partners (DCSF-RR111), www.dcsf.gov.ukresearch
Three of a kind
Parents want reassurance and a flexible approach that fits with working hours. Schools could enable parents to meet teachers outside working hours or at weekends. Email and phone texts could work well.
Parents want support. They would appreciate booklets on how to help their children and would be willing to take mini courses. They would like to be more involved in the school as long as they were able to contribute in a meaningful way.
Parents want to feel informed. They want parents' pages on the school website, a school calendar and homework diaries. While confident about meeting teachers or helping with homework, they feel they do not need to get involved in learning.