Why are parents so hard to engage in secondary schools?

Young people need the support of parents throughout their time at school, says Tina Woolnough

Why are parents so hard to engage in secondary schools?

We recently ran a Twitter chat for educators on parental engagement with Dr Janet Goodall, a leading academic and researcher in the field. One participant asked why there was such a difference in parental engagement in primary school compared with secondary school.

Dr Goodall described the research findings on this issue: access (more parents come to primary schools, more often); size (primaries are smaller and less daunting); relationships (easier to develop with one teacher in primary than with several in secondary); parents working full time; and parents with past uncomfortable experiences with secondary schools.

The Twitter chat prompted lots of great ideas for parental engagement in secondary settings. One suggested holding an “essential guide to secondary school” event for parents and families to describe the school day and explain “school language” such as “BGE” (broad general education) and “national qualifications”.


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Ideas for engaging parents in children’s learning were also shared. These included: giving parents a “kitchen science” kit to use at home; opening school kitchens for children to show their families what they had learned about preparing healthy food; creating friendly, casual family learning events; and holding school/parent events outside the school building.

So, there are plenty of good ideas – and yet it is still a struggle. It is not enough to suggest parents are stepping away from involvement because their children are growing up. Young people continue to need parental support and interest to varying degrees throughout their school lives (and post-school lives). The question has to be: what can secondary school staff do to encourage and enable that parental support and interest?

Connect’s Partnership Schools Scotland pilot programme uses a model for family engagement based on a well-evidenced US whole school community approach to improve outcomes for children. We recently published our Year 3 report on the programme, which looks at the differences in parental engagement between the primary and secondary sectors.

Our findings confirm the challenges: parents may feel they can “step away” from their child’s education; they may work longer hours or lack confidence. They may find secondary school daunting and intimidating, they may feel unwelcome and excluded, and they may feel the lack of relationships with staff, particularly in comparison with primary schools, is too big a barrier to overcome.

Parent councils have a crucial role to play in addressing this. The Parental Involvement Act does not differentiate between primary and secondary sectors; parent councils in secondary schools have a responsibility to reach out to their parents, and to represent views and to support all parents in engaging with the school and their child’s learning.

There is a lot of work for school staff to do and the new draft guidance to the Act, expected after the summer, will raise the bar higher. Our report findings are that educators may have little or no professional learning around parental involvement and engagement. Schools may concentrate on the parent council for their parental engagement and teachers may have a subject or attainment focus, with limited experience of children’s learning as a shared endeavour with parents.

Teachers, meanwhile, may have had limited contact with parents, and this may include negative encounters about problems and issues, when parents are upset or angry. Or teachers may feel that parental engagement is the responsibility of one or two colleagues, rather than it being part of a whole school approach to improving outcomes for young people.

Above all, there needs to be a reset of the thinking about parental engagement in secondary schools. Young people are supported most effectively when the adults in their lives work together. This requires a cultural change in many schools, for staff, parent councils, individual parents and also for young people.

The headteacher of one of our partnership schools described the approach of her staff: “We care first and teach second.” Can all school leaders say this of their schools?

Tina Woolnough is acting communications officer for Connect (formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council). It tweets @Connect_ScotPL

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