It’s Friday morning and a crowd is gathering outside Rangefield Primary School in Bromley, South London. It is entirely male. And the age range is broad – those in their twenties mingle with those in their seventies.
For many schools, a crowd like this forming outside the gates would be unusual. For others, it would be so rare it may even raise concerns.
But at Rangefield, this is now the norm. These dads, grandfathers and uncles soon line up in the playground, and are then led into the school buildings. Because today is “Dad’s Hub”, a termly 90-minute activity session that involves male guardians spending time with their children at school.
The idea came about, explains interim head Del Rowland, because the school’s existing parent workshops were attended almost exclusively by female guardians.
“The rationale was – and still is – to engage significant male carers in school life, so that they can get to know the staff, what we do and why we do it,” says Rowland. “It also gives the men practical ideas to participate in educational activities with their children out of school, too.”
So far, the results have been positive: the sessions, which have been running for three years, have received good feedback from both parents and pupils, and staff have noticed an uptick in parental engagement with the school. Rowland believes that this engagement is “priceless” – an essential component of teaching and learning.
“If you don’t engage the parents, then you’re missing one side of a triangle,” he says. “A two-sided triangle doesn’t exist. It’s incomplete and doesn’t connect.”
Research suggests that Rowland is right. Countless studies, dating back to the 1960s, have shown that there is a clear link between parental engagement in learning and performance at school for children of all ages. You would find it very difficult to find a school that did not buy into this narrative.
However, evidence around how schools can increase parental engagement is far less reliable, according to a new guidance report from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), released today.
The report states that it can be “challenging” to influence engagement effectively and that schools should therefore be “cautious” about any strategy that seeks to directly improve children’s learning through getting parents involved. This advice comes despite decades of work on parental engagement, both formal through academia and informal in schools.
So why have we not yet found an answer on what works? And, since the answer remains elusive, does that mean we might never find one?
The failure to find a solution on influencing positive parental engagement has certainly not been down to a lack of effort on either side of the school gates. A 2018 survey by parent organisation Parentkind showed that nearly nine in 10 parents (88 per cent) want to play an active role in their child’s education, while a second Parentkind survey revealed that teachers overwhelming believed that parental engagement had a positive impact on their school, with just 2 per cent saying that it had no impact at all.
And any head will tell you that the majority of parents want to be involved with school life, and that schools want to help out as much as possible at home, too.
There is also backing from government for closer links. Last month, education secretary Damian Hinds hosted a summit with the aim of helping to support parents with learning at home: what he calls the “last taboo” in education.
‘The science is clear’
And in academia, as mentioned, there has been a long-term focus on parental engagement.
“We’ve always known that parents who read to their child, take their child to the library, sing songs and rhymes with their child, that those children do better in school. The science is very clear,” says Kathy Sylva, emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Oxford, who was part of the advisory panel for the EEF report.
So everyone knows that parental involvement is a good thing, and everyone is willing to get involved, but how best that might happen is still a bit of a mystery. As the report explains, evidence for what works when it comes to influencing parental engagement is very patchy.
“Although there’s good evidence that what parents do is associated with improved outcomes for children, the evidence on effective interventions that schools can do to change [parent behaviour] is much weaker,” says Matthew van Poortvliet, head of programmes at the EEF, and one of the report’s authors.
Michelle Doyle Wildman, acting CEO of Parentkind, agrees that there is too little evidence about what might work for parents. “We know that teachers already recognise the value of parental involvement in education but face challenges in terms of overcoming barriers and providing a range of ways that are fit for purpose for the entire parent community,” she says. “So while the evidence is unequivocal that parents make the difference, what actually works in practice is somewhat piecemeal and under-researched. Parentkind would like to see this addressed.”
That leaves schools in a difficult position. Until evidence emerges, they are left to guess at what might work from their experience and through trial and error. To do this effectively, van Poortvliet suggests, they would need to review their current approaches regularly, stick to those interventions that have more promising evidence and closely monitor the progress of any strategies they use. Unfortunately, he argues, this cautious approach isn’t always being followed.
“Parents want to work with schools and schools want to work with parents, but actually most schools say they don’t have an explicit plan for how they work with parents, and most teachers have not had any training or support in how to do that effectively. So there is a gap between having the aspiration of wanting to be able to do it and having the time available and the support to do it as effectively as they would want to,” he says.
Lack of time is “the biggest issue” that schools face in this area, argues Nancy Gedge, coordinator of the Ormerod Resource Base at the Marlborough School in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, and a Tes columnist. “Most of the problems that we face in school come down to capacity. Teachers haven’t got the time to mark, let alone to do all the little extras.”
She adds that this lack of time does not just impact on how an approach to parent engagement is implemented, but also on which strategy is adopted in the first place. Or even whether there is a strategy at all. Despite the importance of parental engagement, she argues, doing anything comprehensive in this area is often simply “beyond schools’ capacity at the moment”.
There is some support for that view from the academics. To properly assess a strategy you would need to understand the knowns and unknowns of the evidence base and how that might impact on any components of any given strategy. That is a big ask, says Sylva, because there are still many unknowns even in areas where we know there is likely to be positive impact – like reading.
For instance, she says, if schools invest in workshops to train parents who do not read to their child at home how to do so, will you get the same result in terms of the child’s development as you would with a parent who automatically reads with their child?
“We don’t really know the answer to that, because people who naturally do it probably have other things: they may themselves be readers, they probably have bigger vocabularies. So although we can train parents to do very precise behaviours like reading to your child or sounding out words, the other things that the parents who naturally do it [have] are not present,” she says.
These environmental factors will complicate every intervention a school tries to roll out: though some who sell parental engagement tools may like to pretend otherwise, an effective one-size-fits-all parental intervention tool is almost certainly impossible.
A second major issue, according to Stephen Scott, professor of child health and behaviour at King’s College London, is that expecting strategies that are designed to engage parents in children’s learning to transform academic outcomes overlooks the role that natural intellectual ability has to play in achievement.
“There is quite a heritability for intellectual ability, which still seems to be politically unacceptable [to say] in some circles. It seems to be OK for height and strength and athletic ability and music ability, but for some reason not academics. But when we do twin studies, adoption studies, it’s clear that there is a heritable element to it.”
So believing that parental engagement can be a cure-all that will result in every child attaining at the highest levels is giving schools a task that they cannot hope to succeed at, he claims. And this, Scott says, is on top of already expecting a school to reach into a home and solve the environmental factors mentioned above, when it is arguably not its job to do so.
“I think it’s difficult because schools are expected to cure all of society’s ills, but I’m not sure schools should be responsible for stuff they have no control over, which is what’s going on at home,” he says.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman is certainly not in favour of it being a school’s job to intervene with many of the things they have been tasked with. Speaking at the launch of the Ofsted Annual Report, she lamented that schools have been made responsible for everything from toilet training to obesity and knife crime. She added that solutions to these issues laid beyond the school gate and were a distraction for teachers.
It seems likely, then, that schools are trying to do too much with parental engagement, but even for those aspects of education it is a school’ s job to help with, will we always be left searching for the right way to go about it because the answer is too complex?
The response is a unanimous “no” from those engaged in the research: Scott, Sylva and the EEF all agree that while we might not have robust evidence around how to successfully increase parental engagement in a way that will reliably improve academic outcomes, some strategies do appear to be more promising than others.
Essentially, we are not as much in the dark as we once were, but we currently only have a head torch to light the way, when what schools really need is for someone to switch the lights on.
A headtorch, though, is better than nothing. So if schools manage expectations about how much impact parental engagement can have and appreciate the likely limitations of any one-size-fits-all strategy, what does the evidence that we do have suggest may be useful?
The EEF has split its advice into four key recommendations for schools:
1. Review your current approaches to parental engagement
Given that the evidence has shown that it can be “challenging” for schools to influence parental engagement in children’s learning effectively, school leaders need to be critical of any interventions they are using and to plan their approaches carefully.
The report states that a written plan may help to “turn parental engagement from something accidental or peripheral to school improvement into an intentional programme”.
This planning process should start with leaders identifying a clear objective for what they hope to achieve, focusing on specific skills that they want children to develop. Leaders should then audit current practice to assess what is working well and stop any activities that do not have clear benefits, bearing their objectives in mind. This will involve talking to parents to determine whether the approaches are working for them, too.
“I don’t think it’s ‘do less’, but critically reviewing what you’re doing at the moment,” says van Poortvliet. “Start off by seeing which parents are already involved in those activities and which ones aren’t and ask if you are actually reaching the parents that are most important to you in terms of priorities for school improvement.”
Any plan for parental engagement will also need to address the support, resource and time required of all the staff who are involved, bearing in mind that training might be required in some cases.
Chris Woodcock, head of school at Durrington High School in West Sussex, believes that failing to focus on this planning stage is what lets a lot of schools down.
“Where I feel people go wrong a lot of the time is that they don’t thoroughly evaluate their current position to start with. And I think that one of the key things of the report is to look at the efficiency of gain, if you like. Because we could all go out and knock on doors all day, every day, but that’s not efficient and schools need to be more efficient,” he says.
The report makes it clear that “classroom interventions working directly with children currently have more evidence of effectiveness at improving learning than parenting interventions with the same aim”.
Therefore, leaders may consider whether it would ultimately be more efficient to invest time and effort in classroom-based interventions around learning and work instead to build relationships with parents in a more general sense.
2. Provide practical strategies to support learning at home
Schools can support parents by offering practical guidance and encouragement about the types of things they can do at home, the report suggests. However, the focus and strategies will be different for different age groups, and schools should concentrate on areas where there is more evidence of effectiveness.
For example, for young children, there is evidence that shared reading at home can improve outcomes and that schools giving parents tips and strategies can make home reading more effective. These strategies include parents asking children a range of questions about the book they are reading together and talking about links between the book and real life.
While shared activities, such as reading together, appear to be helpful in the younger years, the report states that “as children get older, parental encouragement for and interest in their children’s learning appear to be more important than direct involvement”.
This is particularly true, research suggests, when it comes to homework. Children who regularly complete homework have “better school outcomes than children who do not”, particularly at secondary school. Parents can have a “positive effect” on homework completion, but how parents support homework is important, the report explains: “Evidence suggests that schools should encourage parents to know about homework and support their children to do it, rather than get directly involved.”
Although parents might naturally want to help their children, van Poortvliet says that getting directly involved in the activities, especially with older children, does not always have good results. “Particularly, as the content becomes more challenging, is it realistic to expect parents to know the details of how to teach ratios or long division?” he asks. Instead, setting rules about when and where homework should be done and creating a daily homework routine reinforced with praise and rewards can be helpful.
3. Tailor school communications to encourage positive messages about learning
Unlike engagement programmes that involve parents attending workshops or receiving training in specific strategies to use at home, improving home-school communications could be a quick win for schools.
Well-designed school communications can be effective for improving attainment and a range of other outcomes, such as attendance, the report explains.
Several evaluations have suggested that text-messaging programmes that prompt conversations about learning at home, provide tips to parents or give information about children’s learning can be effective and are generally low-cost and straightforward to introduce.
Woodcock tried a texting programme at his school and says he has been very pleased with the results. “Everyone has a mobile phone in their pocket. It gives you a direct access and will guarantee that something will be seen,” he explains. “The texting side has been incredibly powerful, because it doesn’t even rely on people opening an app or anything like that; it just literally comes up on their screen there and then. So we have found massive gains in that, actually.“
Careful thought needs to be given to the frequency, timing and targeting of messages, and the tone needs careful consideration, too. The report points out that communications are “likely to be more effective if they are personalised, linked to learning and promote positive interactions (eg, celebrate success)”.
Additionally, communication should be “two-way”, including asking parents what they would find helpful in supporting their child’s learning.
Evidence shows that parents’ happiness with how schools engage them is greater if they have been consulted, and schools respond to their preferences.
4. Offer more sustained and intensive support where needed
In some cases, more intensive support may be needed to support parental engagement. Examples include children who are struggling with early reading, those from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with behavioural difficulties. There is “promising” evidence in favour of some structured, targeted interventions for parents aimed at improving social, emotional and behavioural outcomes, which could support learning. However, the report warns that more intensive approaches can be “difficult, costly and time-consuming” and that schools need to plan particularly carefully before implementing them.
Schools should start by assessing needs and talking to parents about what would help. This will support school leaders to target resources effectively and avoid widening any existing gaps. It is important that targeting is done sensitively, “to avoid stigmatising, blaming or discouraging parents”.
This last part is crucial, Scott believes. He says that his own research into working with parents of children with behavioural difficulties in a deprived area of Lambeth, South London, indicates that the vast majority of parents are keen to support the school with their child’s learning, sometimes despite appearances.
“Parents often get blamed by various people, even some teachers, for the bad behaviour, but these people were really wanting the best for their children,” he says.
“Parents will be keen to help their children if they’re tackled the right way.”
Though we may not have the answer to parental engagement, we do have – thanks to research and creative thinking from headteachers – a number of possible or even likely solutions that schools can pick from.
And these hints are worth seizing upon, says Woodcock. He believes that even getting parents a little more engaged, in any way possible, can have a hugely positive impact on a child. Yes, it would be nice to have robust evidence, he concedes, but sometimes you just have to trust the evidence of your own eyes.
“I know the research is patchy, but I think what you tend to find is that the kids that do well generally have the same trait of parents being supportive in whatever way works for that child. And I know that you can’t record that sort of soft data, but if you can move parents just a little bit more into that remit, of that sort of aspiration, I think it really does help all students because they begin to recognise that they can do it and it is worthwhile,” he says.
Helen Amass is deputy commissioning editor at Tes. She tweets @Helen_Amass
Reviewing the situation
A new guidance report from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), released today, aims to help schools considering what they can do to support parents in improving children’s learning, from early years through to secondary school.
Working with parents to improve children’s learning draws on a recent EEF review of the evidence about parental engagement in children’s learning. It is not a new study in itself, but rather is intended as an accessible overview of existing research with clear, actionable guidance, aimed primarily at senior leaders.
You can read the full report on the EEF website at bit.ly/EEFguides
* Epstein, Joyce L, et al. School, Family, and Community Partnerships: your handbook for action (fourth edition), 2018.
* Goodall, J. “A toolkit for parental engagement: from project to process”. School Leadership and Management 38:2 (2018), pp 222-238.
* Hernández-Alava, M, and Popli, G. “Children’s Development and Parental Input: evidence from the UK millennium cohort study’, Demography 54:2 (2017), pp 485-511.
* Scott, S; Sylva, K, et al. “Randomised controlled trial of parent groups for child anti-social behaviour targeting multiple risk factors: the SPOKES project”, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51:1 (2010), pp 48-57.
* Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: parental engagement. See bit.ly/ToolkitParent