Most teachers will tell you that parents are very important and that their school does whatever it can to involve them. In reality, however, a significant number of teachers see parents as a distraction. Now they’re out of the way, these teachers say, we can get on with the real job of educating pupils.
Indeed, schools do many surprising things that are unhelpful to parents. Here are my top 10:
1 Having reception areas that are unwelcoming and without comfortable seating.
2 Keeping parents in the dark about what their child will be learning in the week ahead.
3 Making it hard to arrange an appointment to see a teacher.
4 Not answering emails and voicemails promptly.
5 Class teachers offering a child-sized seat to a parent during a meeting but taking an adult one themselves.
6 Giving children impossible homework or deadlines and leaving parents to cope.
7 Using edu-babble and jargon.
8 Organising the PTA so that all it really does is fundraising.
9 Failing to offer parents genuine opportunities to make constructive suggestions.
10 Not acknowledging constructive feedback.
It need not be like this. Research into the benefits of parental engagement in schools makes a powerful case for closer involvement. American academics Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp sum it up well: “The evidence is consistent, positive and convincing: families have a major influence on children’s achievement. When schools, families and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better at school, stay in school longer and like school more.”
The effect of parental engagement is large in comparison with other factors influencing student achievement – and the impact is greatest when children are youngest. Real parental engagement is a significant way to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers; and the younger the child, the greater the influence of home relative to school.
The challenge for all schools is to find appropriate ways of connecting with children’s home lives and then commending, nudging or supporting parents into doing things that are likely to be helpful – all the while remaining respectful of the very different parenting cultures and styles that exist today.
But what do we want parents to be doing? In his work on this subject just over a decade ago, the UK academic Charles Desforges focused on two things. “In essence,” he said, “parenting has its influence indirectly through shaping the child’s self-concept as a learner and through setting high aspirations.”
In Engaging parents: why and how – for the SSAT network’s Redesigning Schooling initiative – I summarised the kinds of helpful activities that parents can do at home. These include:
l using interesting and complex vocabulary;
l discussing school progress;
l giving feedback that is specific and praises effort;
l talking about external events;
l encouraging children to read for a range of purposes;
l engaging in cultural activities such as visiting libraries, museums and historic sites;
l encouraging children to develop hobbies, to question and to try out new things;
l establishing and valuing learning routines;
l supporting children to practise sport, music or dance;
l asking children to help with household tasks.
But how do schools encourage parents to do all this? In the US, the Johns Hopkins University academic Joyce Epstein has suggested that schools can engage with parents in six ways. Our focus needs to be on three of these: helping parents to parent; enabling effective home-to-school and school-to-home communication; and providing good information so that all parents can help with homework. Other family learning activities should also be offered.
Many schools may be doing these things already but where some fall down is in the mindset. This is not a battle: effective parental engagement requires schools to take on board that parents are partners. It is not about parents in a supporting role – it is about collaborating with them on teaching and learning. It is an attitude of “we are teaching your child together”. It is not being afraid to open the door to the “dark arts” of teaching and letting the parent in.
This is already starting to happen. The national organisation for parent teacher associations, PTA UK, is changing the emphasis of its activities. New leader Emma Williams is moving PTA UK away from its historic concerns with fundraising and more extracurricular support to an explicit focus on learning and the curriculum, with expert help on strategies for strengthening cooperation between home and school.
Shifting parents’ mindsets has been successful in some schools, too. PTA UK cites the example of Stanton Bridge Primary in Coventry. With the school on the verge of special measures, headteacher Sofina Islam was told at her first parents’ evening: “Mrs Islam, you need to know that we don’t tell our friends that our children come to Stanton Bridge – it’s known to be the worst school in Coventry.”
Five years later, after explicitly focusing on parental support of children’s learning, Stanton Bridge had become one of the top 250 schools in the country (watch a video about the school’s success story at bit.ly/StantonBridge).
A similar shift of emphasis can be seen in the use of technology by schools. Although all schools have websites and many also use texts, email alerts and apps, these are usually for the purposes of school organisation. But some institutions are now seeking to develop a conversation about what children have been learning.
MarvellousMe and Seesaw are good examples of apps that effectively invite talk about children’s achievements. The first one makes it quick and easy for teachers to praise children by sending “high-fives” home. Seesaw, meanwhile, lets students of any age document what they are learning at school to share at home digitally.
These types of platform mean that, when a child walks in the door at home, or when they are picked up at school, the parent is already well informed.
All of us parents know just how dispiriting it can be to be told by your child that school was “boring” in response to your lame question, “How was school today?” At a stroke, this ineffective parental question can be tossed in the linguistic litter bin.
Six ways to sharpen communication
Finally, schools can try six basic things to improve communication with parents immediately.
1 Tell parents every fortnight – in accessible language – what their child will be learning; make one practical suggestion about what they could do to help.
2 On your website, put up an annotated map of all the informal learning opportunities – libraries, museums, woodlands, cinemas, shopping centres, theatres, historic sites – within a mile of the school.
3 Recruit parent champions in every year of the school to act as a sounding board for the head and senior staff, and to communicate those discussions to their peers.
4 Shift the focus of the PTA to be explicitly about learning.
5 Survey what the school is already doing well.
6 Alongside parents, draw up a rolling one-year plan for parental engagement.
Parents are children’s first teachers; it’s our job to make it easy for them to work with schools to help students succeed.
Professor Bill Lucas is co-author, with Guy Claxton, of Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn. He is director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester
Watch this Teachers’ TV video about how Compton School in Barnet engages parents.
What enables successful parental engagement? Read the Schools and parents: a new partnership report to find out.
Give parents of primary pupils an idea of the standard required in homework with this guide.
Behaviour tsar Tom Bennett shares his tips on working well with parents.
Henderson, A and Mapp, K (2002) A New Wave of Evidence: the impact of school, family and community connections on student achievement (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory)
Desforges, C and Abouchaar, A (2003) The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: a literature review (DfES)