“At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child’s success is the involvement of parents.”
Jane D. Hull
The association between parental engagement and a child’s academic success is well-established and there is a long history of research into parental engagement programmes. Parent/carer engagement is important because working together (with mothers, fathers and carers) has been shown to have a promising impact on the wellbeing, attendance, behaviour, sense of school belonging, intellectual development and attainment of children across a range of social and economic backgrounds. However, there is surprisingly little robust evidence about the impact of approaches designed to improve learning through increased parental engagement; this evidence is mixed and much less conclusive, particularly for disadvantaged families.
Since 2012, Ofsted has included parental engagement as one of the judgment criteria in school inspections. In the new inspection framework, parental engagement should be judged as successful if it has a clear and positive impact on pupil outcomes. Within the School Inspection Handbook, the grade descriptors found in the ‘Good’ category in “Quality of leadership in, and management of the school” highlight the following: “The school works well with parents, including those who might find working with the school difficult, to achieve positive benefits for pupils.”
The Education Endowment Fund defines parental engagement as “the involvement of parents in supporting their children’s academic learning.”
A DfE review of interventions, aimed at supporting and improving parental engagement in the education of children aged 5-19, highlighted several challenges with parental engagement, such as:
- Teachers often lack the confidence and knowledge to work with parents, and schools do not always recognise or value the ways in which parents are already engaged with children’s learning
- Engagement strategies often lack a clear, consistent focus on raising children’s achievement
- There are numerous logistical barriers to improving parental engagement and effective interventions are often resource-intensive
- Schools generally do not collect sufficient data on their interventions, particularly relating to the impact on academic outcomes
- Partnerships present challenges in the way of gaining access to and sharing data on parents and children
- Information was not always shared across partners, or communicated at points of transition from one location or school to another
- Data on the impact on children’s academic outcomes is largely absent.
The Education Endowment Fund (EEF) has also, more recently, tested a number of interventions designed to improve pupils’ outcomes by engaging parents in different types of skills development. The consistent message from these has been that it is difficult to engage parents in programmes.
So what can schools do?
There are many strategies that schools can use to increase the engagement of parents in the community, including those that directly involve parents and carers in their child’s academic learning. This could focus on building skills with parents/carers (e.g. familiarising them with the curriculum, building parental literacy, maths or IT skills) so that parents can support their child.
School should also be proactive in helping strengthen parent/carers’ abilities to build resilience in their children and in themselves – reducing risks affecting wellbeing and learning. Some schools run programmes for parents/carers which aim to strengthen children’s mental health or de-escalate common problems. Although parents and carers value opportunities to learn about mental health, the word can be daunting as there is still a great deal of stigma attached to it. For children with behavioural difficulties, for example, there is strong evidence that some parenting programmes help parents and carers develop additional techniques and approaches which, if used consistently, can help children manage their own behaviour more effectively. These programmes can also result in improvements in parental mental health.
Putting on information/training sessions about a particular theme can also be useful. For example, running a session on academic stress, especially at times when parents/carers will be worrying about it. There is also a responsibility to notice when parents/carers are in distress and consider how it may be impacting on their child’s learning. In a study of parents accessing the leading national children’s mental health charity, Place2Be’s, school-based parent counselling, parents said that discussions with school staff on children’s wellbeing and progress had been a major prompt to getting help for themselves. It will also be helpful to understand the broader local health and social landscape of support for parents/carers.
Seeing every parent/carer contact (even if it’s a difficult exchange) as an opportunity to support protective factors, so they can work with the school to help their child flourish and learn is also key. Schools can use existing networks and events to ask parents/carers how they are doing, as well as being consistently available and in sight on the playground in the mornings and after school so that parents and carers begin to get to know staff. They’ll also become more familiar with staff roles and will develop a trusted point of contact if they need additional support or someone to talk to. Investing in parents and carers in this way can also reduce the risk of conflict.
It is important that staff are welcoming to parents and carers who come into the school; communicating with them in a non-judgemental and positive way, including having an open-door policy for school leaders and making sure it is communicated to parents and carers.
There is evidence that a whole-school parent engagement strategy – with a clear plan for engaging harder to reach parents/carers – can have a positive impact on levels of engagement. Activities could include:
- Non-academic-related social or ‘taster’ events for parents/carers to build up confidence and trust and help them to become more familiar with the school
- Parent/carer ‘walkabouts’ in schools to familiarise them with what happens in school and what teachers are seeking to achieve with children
- Uniform swap shops or banks. These sorts of activities and resources will help parents/carers feel more involved and can be useful for showing that schools can be supportive
- Parenting support groups
- Parent/teacher associations.
Identifying staff development needs and gauging how confident staff members are with speaking to parents and carers is crucial to building better relationships between the school and parents. Staff should be kept up-to-date about internal and external services that support parents and carers and have a list of services to hand that parents can be signposted to for more specialist help.
Whilst schools have a responsibility to support and implement parental engagement strategies, many of these can be considered time-consuming and could impact on teacher workload. Findings from Ofsted’s report on teacher wellbeing have highlighted that relationships with parents can be a negative factor and a source of stress for a number of reasons, including unrealistic parental expectations for their child/children which could lead to excessive pressure on staff; the frequency of emails from parents and an expectation for an instant response; and parents raising concerns or complaints inappropriately.
Schools should take steps to mitigate the impact on workload, such as informing parents about the most appropriate ways of raising concerns and providing support to staff when a complaint has been raised. Schools could also consider replacing email communication with parents with other forms of communication (such as face-to-face or phone communication) or restrict access to staff’s email addresses. A trial by EEF, which aimed to prompt greater parental engagement through text message alerts, delivered a small positive impact, with a very low cost of around £6 a year for each pupil.
Whilst many schools face challenges with parental engagement and involvement, it is important to consider that, if approached appropriately, the implementation of these strategies could have a moderate or even significant impact on pupils’ achievement for a relatively moderate cost.
Does your school do something different to engage parents? What impact have you seen from the strategies your school has implemented? Share your thoughts in the comments.