The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

Engaging parents in their children's education: a strengths-based approach

To be successful in building partnerships with parents and carers, schools need to rethink their approach to parental engagement. Dr Karamat Iqbal looks at how schools can build bridges with the world of parents.

Partnership between parents and schools has been a part of the British education system, at least, since the 1980s.

The 1985 white paper Better Schools acknowledged parents as ‘educators’, asked schools to ‘work closely with them’ and to ‘take a wider view of how parents can support at home’. It also drew attention to some parents who ‘lack confidence to come forward or are held back by other difficulties’ and offered advice on what schools could do for this group.

In 1997, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education under the New Labour government, stressed the fact that parents are a child’s primary educators. Such partnership with parents has been reinforced ever since and schools have been reminded of its benefits, namely its significant (my emphasis) effect on educational achievement.

Parental engagement is back on the agenda

Parental engagement is now back on the education agenda. The Department for Education has pointed out that boards of multi-academy trusts ‘should be connected with, and answerable to, the communities they serve, particularly parents/carers.’

While parents’ contribution in their children’s education can take a variety of forms, schools generally tend to focus on their involvement at school, in particular, attendance at parent-teacher meetings.

To discourage such a narrow approach on parental involvement, it has been pointed out that it is not so much their attendance at school but at home good parenting that makes the real difference. It has also been pointed out that where parental involvement activities are not directly connected to learning they have little impact on pupil achievement.

Marginalised parents

When the focus is on parental involvement at school, it privileges the professionals. Given that everything is done on their terms, many parents are marginalised (Watson & Bogotch, 2015).

In their work with parents, professionals can also be in the danger of following a ‘banking model’ (Goodall, 2017) which is based on the premise that all knowledge rests with the professionals and parents are assumed to know nothing about helping with their child's education. This can especially be the case where white middle class teachers are dealing with working class or ethnic minority parents.

When the focus is on parental involvement at schoolit privileges the professionals.

Here it is important that schools move away from a deficit approach to one that is asset-based. The latter sees people as more than their needs and what they may lack. Instead it sees them as resourceful and experts within their own context, in charge of their own lives. When such an approach is taken, schools can discover that there is much to be gained from the lived experience and ‘funds of knowledge’ of their different groups of parents. 

A parent may live in the most disadvantaged of circumstances but may have much to offer to the school, not least an example of resilience arising out of their circumstances. Or a parent may not speak much English but may just be highly educated; it just happens to be in another language.  

Parents are different

Different groups of parents face different barriers when dealing with their children’s school.

  • Parents may have had negative experiences at school.
  • Their children may not want them to be visible in school.
  • It may be assumed that parents only get involved when there is a problem.
  • They can’t access the right person or can’t physically get to school.

Schools do occasionally encounter barriers due to particular cultural attitudes which require to be addressed with sensitivity. Given the increasing linguistic diversity in society, it has been suggested to schools to, where necessary, communicate in the parent’s primary language.

On occasions schools are faced with a lack of contact with fathers. This also requires its own particular strategy. In a 2004 DfE report, research shows that both parents impact on their children’s development, both similarly and differently:

'Taking action to include both parents in the life of the school and in their children’s learning can make a significant and positive difference to children’s achievements, motivation and self-esteem.'

To be successful in their partnership with parents, schools are advised to take a differentiated approach. Instead of a ‘one-size-fits-all’, we should instead think of:

  • fathers
  • mothers
  • carers
  • single parents
  • non-resident parents
  • parents from minority ethnic communities
  • parents with disabled children or children with learning difficulties
  • parents who have a disability themselves.

‘Hard to reach’ parents

Schools invariably speak of parents who will not come to the school at all.

When such disengagement is spoken of it is usually one dimensional, i.e. it refers to attendance by parents at the school to hear the teachers’ report on the child’s learning at school. Here it is forgotten that the parental role in the child’s learning is much broader ­­– it started when the child was born and continues alongside the schooling years and beyond.  

In any case the reasons for parental disengagement with school has been challenged. It has been pointed out that schools are equally to be blamed here. Parents have complained of feeling ‘undervalued, misunderstood and even disregarded by school staff, particularly if there are cultural differences’.

To go to a meeting at school, such as a parent-teacher consultation, requires the parents to enter an alien space. If they are from an ethnic minority or working-class background or have had a low level of education, to enter the school environment belonging to white middle class professionals can be a daunting process.

Helping parents

Some schools have taken creative measures to help the parents get over the threshold.

  • One primary school known to me organised beauty activities for parents. Once there, the school were able to discuss with them their child’s progress.
  • Another school, which served a former mining community, found that ‘teachers were afraid to go out into the community, and parents were afraid to come into school’. In response, the school offered families free breakfast. Slowly, this attracted many parents who previously would avoid the school. Once at the school they stayed on for workshops on how to help their child with learning.
  • Other ideas include making relationship with parents an integral part of all staff’s role and making use of ‘volunteers from the community who act as ambassadors or champions, reaching out to other parents to encourage them to take part in school activities or helping them develop their own child's language and literacy skills at home.’

Meetings

It is also worth asking whether parent-teacher meetings always have to be at the school; why not let the parent decide?

If not at the parents’ home then the meeting could be held at a local cafe or some space which maybe already frequented by the parents concerned. A secondary school I have worked with successfully reached out to their diverse parents (disadvantaged, ethnic and linguistic minority), by hiring a room in the local shopping centre.

Seeing things from the parents’ perspective

Schools wishing to work in partnership with all their parents must be prepared to see the situation from the parents’ perspective.  

For the so called hard-to-reach parents, parents’ evening can be a dreaded event. Not being able to speak to the class teacher on their level can be deeply embarrassing for some. Having to mix with other parents, especially those from higher socio-economic groups can make parents uncomfortable. Some parents, not just those who are speakers of other languages, can have trouble understanding some communications from the school.

A meeting at school requires the parent to enter an alien space

In our work on pupil premium, where schools are expected to publish a statement for parents, we normally advise that the statement is in plain English and parents are invited to give feedback on whether they understand it. Schools can take the simple step to ask parents what they expect from the school and then discuss how they can both work together.

Closing words

Schools need to build bridges between the world they inhabit and the world of the parents.

Here, staff who live in the locality can be an asset. It is often the case that support staff are the ones who live locally. They should be trained and encouraged to enter into conversation with the parents.

The aim, according to Goodall (2017), is a true partnership around the child's learning; where schools approach parents as equal partners, treat them with respect and accord them the status of colleagues in the educational endeavour.  

The Leading Parent Partnership Award supports schools in developing positive relationships with parents. The framework encourages parents to be involved in their children's learning leading to improved outcomes in all aspects of school life.

To find out more, visit the AwardPlace website.  

References

  • Goodall, J. Learning-centred parental engagement: Freire reimagined. Educational Review, 2017
  • Watson, T.N & Bogotch, I. Reframing parental involvement: what should urban school leaders do differently? Leadership and Policy in Schools, 2015

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