Supporting parental involvement to improve children’s achievement

I had a phone call from a parent this week asking for advice.  The person is a member of their child’s school’s Parents’ Council. She had joined the Council with a view to learning how she can support her child’s learning and also to help the school.

Her concern centred around her perceived lack of focus on learning and teaching and the role of parents in helping to develop that key purpose.  In her opinion the Parents’ Council was almost exclusively focused upon what might be described as the “technical” aspects of the school, i.e. budgets, class sizes, composite classes, maintenance issues, resources.

Such was her concern that she felt she would be left with no alternative but to resign as she felt she couldn’t raise this matter with the Parents’ Council as she described her interest, in her own words, as “softer” issues to do with learning, than the more substantive issues of budget, class sizes, etc.  

I promised to give this matter more thought and was given her permission to refer to the phone call in this Learning Log.

I think I understand why Parents’ Councils perhaps focus on those issues which are more “black and white” than the complex business of how we help our children achieve.  Not that I’m suggesting that concern for class sizes, or composite classes, or budget don’t have any connection with the quality of the learning experience. But it’s just that by their very nature they can give a concrete rallying point around which parents can gather and feel they are doing something constructive to support the school.

Perhaps the challenge is to strike a balance between the “technical” issues with the “developmental” issues?  Research into parental involvement in education conclusively supports our intuitive understanding that parents make a difference in terms of children’s educational outcomes . So what type of parental involvment makes a difference? I came across this research paper which explored the impact of parental involvment and distinguished between two types of parental involvement:

Spontaneous activity and induced activity are very different phenomena. The former is entirely voluntary whilst the latter might not be, at least initially.

Spontaneous activity is quintessentially ‘bottom up’; it is grass roots in origin, self motivated and self sustained.

Intervention programmes are, almost by definition, initiated by some non-parental source. They are, at least initially, ‘top down’. They are played out characteristically to solve some problem (in this case a perceived insufficiency of parental involvement). pg 85

Such research has shown that the “top down” interventions do not have the impact of “bottom-up” spontaneous parental involvement.

The authors go on to describe the features of spontaneous parental involvment:

9.2 Research on spontaneous parental involvement has revealed a range of activities in which parents engage to promote their children’s educational progress. These include:
– at home pre-school good parenting providing for security, intellectual stimulation and a good self concept
– at home enduring modelling of constructive social and educational aspirations and values relating to personal fulfillment and good citizenship
contacting the child’s teacher to learn about the school’s rules and procedures, the  curriculum, homework, assessment and the like
visits to school to discuss issues and concerns as these arise
participation in school events such as fêtes
working in the school in support of teachers (for example in preparing lesson materials, supervising sports activities) and otherwise promoting the school in the community
taking part in school management and governance

Evidence indicates that  parental involvement has a significant effect on children’s achievement and adjustment even after all other factors (such as social class, maternal education and poverty) have been take out of the equation between children’s aptitudes and their achievement.

In fact one of the key findings of research is that

“Differences in parental involvement have a much bigger impact on achievement than differences associated with the effects of school in the primary age range.  Pg 86, 9.2.2

If the key factor in achievement is parental involvement then how might we create an environment which supports and enables all parents to be involved in the development of their child?

Yet such research presents a dilemma for someone in my position, i.e. if “top-down” interventions intended to improve parental involvement don’t work, how do we “at the top” support “bottom-up” self motivated parental involvement which do have such a positive effect on the outcomes for children?

The other factor to be considered here is how such an agenda might be perceived by parents who might be focused upon the “technical” issues of budgets, class sizes, etc. Quite rightly someone in my position needs to be held accountable and I would support parents’ right to question and discuss such matters. However, it might be worth reflecting upon how we might balance such “technical” concerns with an equal focus upon supporting parental involvement in the “developmental” issues relating to child development and the learning process.

At this point in time time I’m unsure about how to go ahead  but I do hope to discuss this with the East Lothian Parents’ Councils Association to consider if there are any steps we might take to collectively address this issue. 

18 thoughts on “Supporting parental involvement to improve children’s achievement

  1. As a parent member who tends to focus on the “technical” issues, I would like to say to the lady, please don’t resign, I’m sure your contributions are valuable and welcome, particularly at a time when people are being diverted by the budget cuts.

    I guess the method to use to broaden the focus of the parent council is to get the non-technical issues onto the agenda and make sure that the chair person gives each item its fair share of time.

    For the Knox Academy cluster group, we have formed what is probably best described as a sub-committee of the parent councils (HAGS) to handle the budget issues. In principal, this should reduce the amount of discussion of the cuts at the full parent council meetings and allow the less “technical” issues more time.

  2. I am concerned that this parent wasn’t clear about the role of a Parent Council Representative. It is my understanding that the primary role of a parent council representative is to represent the views of the schools parent forum. The issue here is really about knowing how to gather the views of the parents and carers school forum they represent. If the parents and carers are concerned that their parent council should be addressing the issues of learning and development then surely the Parent Council at this school would form a task group called ‘learning and development’.

    It was clear from the research I have carried out that the single most issue regarding ways to help parents to better support learning and development of the children was to improve communication systems at and through the school.

    I suggest this parent seek clarity about what their role as Parent Council Representative was.

  3. I think there is a distinction between parental involvement and parental engagement in learning.

    It seems to me that the involvement part is about the technical issues and visits to school, participation in school events, promoting the school in the community and taking part in school life generally. I think schools and parent councils in general are pretty good at this already.

    Engagement, as characterised by at home pre-school good parenting and modelling of constructive social and educational aspirations and values, contact with the young person’s teacher and crucially taking a full role in supporting the everyday learning of the young person, is what makes a difference to learning and achievement.

    I would encourage parents, like the one mentioned in your post, to open dialogue about learning in parent council meetings.

    This is the kind of dialogue that is needed to explore the partnership between schools and parents, in the context of A Curriculum for Excellence, that can make a real and lasting difference to the learning of young people.

    It may also begin to form new understandings, on all sides, about when, where and how young people learn best.

  4. I have to agree with Barry. And then there are also two sides to parental engagement – willingness of the parent to engage and, crucially, willingness of the individual teacher. At primary it’s easy because there are only one or two teachers involved. At High school it’s an altogether different matter. You can’t just walk into the school or the playground and speak to the teacher.

    Some teachers are superbly proactive, keen to have an interactive dialogue and may make the initial contact. In these cases, I have a reasonably good idea what needs doing at home in terms of support and it has made a big difference. Other teachers are reluctant to engage, for whatever reason – busy at work & home, large class size, not so interested, more interested in other individuals, whatever – and it can take 3 or 4 weeks to work through the system, get hold of them and get an answer to a query. That’s quite a long time in an exam year. Often this is via the guidance teacher so the only opportunity you have to speak directly to the teacher – even if all you want is an email conversation which they could do at their convenience – is at the one parents’ evening a year.

    I think for every parent it comes as quite a shock, from day 1 at primary school, that engagement/involvement is purely on the school’s terms. At primary there never seemed to be any consideration that parents also had jobs or other children and couldn’t just drop everything at a moment’s notice. You get used to this pretty quick!

    I have no idea how you solve this because teachers are already very busy but, if you want parental engagement, individual teachers also have to contribute more than lip service.

    And finally – sorry about the essay – just in case anyone takes offence, what I have written is not intended as a criticism of any individual. It’s just an observation relating to our family’s experiences over the last couple of years.

  5. I agree with all the comments too.

    The one thing I would like to highlight again is that the main ‘need to achieve objective’ of parent council representatives is to try to represent the parent forum.

    In the case where there are 1 or 2 reps per class (or year as in secondary school) this is pretty straight forward (see example: Dunbar Primary School P6A class web page).

    The other thing I would like to point out again is – after asking hundreds of parents, carers, pupils and teachers in East Lothian Schools – “what would make things easier for parents and carers to be more involved in their children’s learning and school” the idea that they came up overwhelmingly – as a priority – to help them to help their children learn – was the need for better two way systems for communicating with each other.

    The bottom line is as guineapigmum has said – everyone is very busy these days. We need to use systems for making communication easy and meaningful to all parents and carers (and teachers and pupils too).

    What is clear is that teachers already have their hands full taking care of 30+ children in a class – we can not expect them to also cater to the individual needs of all of their parents and carers too – can we?

    The idea (and reality) of class web pages in primary school (which are managed by pupil and parent council representatives from each class) is that a teachers can answer class specific ‘learning’ type questions parents might ask via the class web page and all parents can benefit. Saves the teacher having to answer same or similar questions potentially 30 times.

  6. It’s interesting that your reflections on parental involvement led you to this paper with its perspective that ‘ “top down” interventions do not have the impact of “bottom-up” spontaneous parental involvement’.
    As a parent and teacher I was always intuitively passionate about engaging all parents and carers in the class by whatever means available to the extent that one Headteacher told me I could teach a P1 class but only if I reduced parental involvement! While studying for Masters, I had a ‘Damascus’moment when I found out about the Family Learning movement and a model for parental involvement in learning by Elsa Auerbach. Auerbach set out her theory that educational establishments generally approach parents with a deficit approach – ‘we are the educationalists and we can show you how to educate your child’ – rather than embracing a wealth model of the learning that occurs in families, where we look at the wealth of learning that goes on in all families. Once we do that, we can work in equitable partnership with parents and carers.
    This links in a way with your theory about top down and bottom up initiatives. Deficit is top down and wealth is bottom up. How many schools say, ‘It doesn’t matter what we do, parents won’t come in.’ But the key question is what are we offering parents in terms of our attitudes, outlooks and initiatives.
    When I became Acting HT in one school, it was Good Health week and a teacher had organised a range of activities for parents to which nobody came. What was organised FOR parents? A talk about headlice (well would you go to one of those?), relaxation class at 9.30am on a Monday morning (would you? Most of these parents were queuing for their giros at the post office at that time.) etc.
    At Forthview, we pay for a teacher to work with parents and carers 3 days per week. This teacher has a wide remit to engage parents and carers by providing learning and social activities for parents with children and for parents. This is a top down initiative because we have instigated it but the approach is a wealth, grass roots approach that recognises we are all learners and parents know best how they want to learn and to be involved in their child’s learning. Activities, programmes and opportunities are set up that parents initiate. Their ideas lead us forward and we facilitate those in partnership with them. This has led to very high levels of parental engagement and family learning in Forthview.
    Peter Peacock visiting us in 2004 said, ‘Today I visited a school (Forthview Primary) which is truly inspiring. That school involves parents before their children arrive at school for the first time. They have a day away – teachers, pupils and parents – getting to know each other and build the basis for good and lasting relationships. There is a very high level of participation. The school is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when, locally, parents, pupils and teacher work together. If it can be achieved there it can be achieved anywhere. ‘
    Is this because we pay a teacher to do this work? Partly it is but the most important factor in our success in involving parents and carers is that we listen and let them lead. As Elsa Auerbach says a wealth perspective to family learning is the foundation stone for successful engagement and partnership between home and school.
    (If anyone wants a copy of her article, email

  7. One other thing! This is fundamentally linked to the other principle you hold high – Unconditional Human Regard. A wealth approach to family learning means approaching parents and carers without judgement, with empathy and with regard for the way they manage in their lives with all the difficulties and/or advantages they have.

  8. Guineapigmum and Susan

    You are right about the need to have more communication but when we are talking about secondary school, where such communication tends to become more difficult, we are talking about possibly 8 or 9 (in some subjects more) different classes with 150 or more pupils. Clearly a secondary teacher can’t communicate easily with every individual and although class blogs or web pages would help we would need a different one for each class to keep an eye on and reply to. This can be quite time consuming especially if you have 3 (or sometimes more) classes to prepare for external exams.

    I have found it very useful to speak to individual parents but would resist engaging in conversations with large numbers due to the sheer time involved. Even speaking to one parent can involve numerous attempts (several trips to the office in free time or the end of the day to catch the parent at a suitable time for them).

    I would agree that the once a year parents evening with a 5 minute slot doesn’t help very much either, but again with the numbers of pupils some teachers see in 1 week, it’s unlikely that this can be increased without a major impact on workload. I don’t want to sound negative as most teachers recognise the importance of dialogue with parents but they also have to ensure they have time to themselves and (where necessary) to be involved with their own children’s school with all the same frustrations you describe.

    Will the changes in teaching methods and more cross curricular work, with a curriculum for excellence help improve this? Perhaps.

  9. All

    Many thanks for the incredibly rich and stimulating feedback. I’m going to write another post drawing some of these ideas together.

    Sheila – could I get a copy of that article?

  10. Sure Don, I will send it on to you. I look forward to reading more in your further post.

    Jen, I am very aware that I am writing as a primary practitioner. I am completely unqualified to say how this could work in a secondary setting. However, many, many primaries complain about the futility and frustrations of working in partnerships with parents and carers. ‘How can we do this? They won’t come in? I don’t have time.’ And I have learnt this that with a fundamental change of perspective, attitude, approach and priorities, partnership with parents and carers can bring richness to a school and crucially can significantly impact on pupil confidence, learning, achievement and attainment. I believe and have much experience that shows that the right approach and attitude can impact in any setting.

  11. Sheila

    I agree with you that partnership can make a huge difference. As a parent of secondary aged children I know that it makes a difference when I have the opportunity to discuss any issues or concerns with the teacher involved. However, I also try to keep these queries to a minimum to ensure I don’t create workload difficulties for the teacher involved. I would love to find more time to talk to those parents who do want to be involved and discuss their childs progress or just want to understand the system better.

    However, I think it needs quite a radical rethink of work in secondary school to get us to that stage. (Can we really change the need for 6 parents evenings or reports to be written for all 150 or so pupils we see – I doubt it as that is part of the communication but can we drop other things or can we think of better ways of doing them?) Perhaps this type of issue could be incorporated into other radical changes which may be part of a curriculum for excellence. However, in the short term many staff will find that the new methods of teaching will require much more preparation time and this may add to their workload. I would love to hear of anyone who has resolved this difficulty of large numbers of parents to try to talk to Vs workload in a secondary school. You are right it all comes down to priorities and the priorities in a secondary school are still numbers and level of passes in exams.

  12. You’ve got me thinking Jen. I am also the parent of an East Lothian S6 pupil and East Lothian’s drive towards blogs and highly managed school websites are a huge success in enabling parents like me, who work from 7am – 7pm and more, to know what is going on in my child’s life at school. Of course I am one of life’s digital elite and can blog and use my PC on a daily basis. What about the ‘digitally excluded families’? That’s where my school is situated. For those parents and carers (and actually helpfully for the rest of us), we need a named person in the high school. Who are we meant to contact in high school if we have a problem? Who knows our child/ren? Just tell us and we will happily contact that person. This is the most significant part of my Family Support Teacher’s job. She is ‘on the gate’ (in the playground) 3 mornings a week, greeting parents and carers, and she is available for anyone who has a wee worry or concern before it turns into a big problem. They can phone her, have access to her mobile number (a key way to communicate in our community) but mostly they know Tracey is the person they can see quickly. (I usually see them very quickly too so we don’t dump it all on Tracey!).
    So my immediate thoughts for high schools?
    1. Well done on the digital communications. They are great.
    2. Give a named person to contact to parents/ carers.

  13. Of course those 2 ideas are only really about communication with parents and carers not about engaging parents and carers in pupil learning. But it’s a start and we cannot engage with parents and carers in pupil learning unless we make time for it. As managers we need to work out what we have to leave out to make time for this and/or what we currently do that we can change to make into a more equal discussion with familiies. Currently at Forthview, we are looking at the traditional parent consultation slot and seeing how we can change that, using our emerging PLP framework (designed with parents and carers) to share more information 2 way about the child as a learner at home and school. (A wealth perspective acknowledges overty the learning outwith school and really apurpose of learning in school is to show children how to learn for the rest of their life.) This new dialogue will be much more meaningful to children and their families. However it takes time for teachers to work with individual pupils in school. Managers have to work with teachers to free up that time so this crucial process can grow.

    Sorry for my excessive blogging! Partnership with Parents and Carers is one of my passions!

  14. Wish I had been aware of this fascinating debate earlier. That will teach me to follow Don’s blog more closely! All the comments highlight the complexity of trying to get parental involvement/engagement right. I have met many teachers like Sheila – passionate about working with parents, going the extra mile to think creatively about what approaches might work, but also having their key focus on how can they get the best for children and young people. There is no doubt from all the research that I have read recently that parental involvement is a key factor in success – through to secondary and beyond. The challenge for Directors, teachers, parents, Parent Councils and others is how can we get it right – for at least as many parents and young people as possible. We know that parents themselves often feel excluded – those that are often termed “hard to reach” see schools as “hard to reach”. I also am acutely aware that parents often want to help with their child’s learning but don’t know how.

    I do think there is a top-down part to this. It takes leadership – to get the right messages/signals that partnership with parents is worth it and is something that we want to buy in to. It takes creativity – whether it is using the technologies to reach busy parents who work around the clock (podcasts, blogs, downloads from school websites are all great examples from schools where they are supporting learning at home, particularly in secondary). It takes partnership – the Family Learning approach can work. Again, schools who use partnership working to help parents feel more comfortable, informed and secure, have shown that it is worth it. I also agree with Susan Guy – one of the key factors is communication. Communication is complex and getting it right is no easy task, but again – using text, using other parents, and young people themselves, can really work. All too often, I hear schools and Authorities complain that parents are not interested as they have not turned up at events or responded to questionnaires. Usually the issue has not been the parents lack of interest, but the way that the invitation/reason has been communicated. Relationships are closely linked to this. I recently met with a Headteacher who had turned her shool around and she was quite clear that the key to her success was working with her parents. Her first priority had been to build a relationship with them – being visible, approachable, accessible, showing them she meant business – were all phrases in her vocabulary. She went from no parent representation, no fundraising, low attendance at parents’ nights to results in all of these. She also recognised that parents are not a homogenous group – some are interestes in fundraising, some supporting learning, others the more technical issues.
    I suppose this tells us that there are no easy answers. One thing, I am clear on is that In Scotland now we seem to have a greater understanding of the contribution that parents can make. This will hopefully become more of a genuine partnership as we move forward with Curriculum for Excellence which I see as a great opportunity to move parental involvement/engagement to newer levels. When you start to talk about enjoying learning, skills for work, confidence and so on, you are talking parents’ language.

  15. Pingback: » Parental Involvement: When does support turn into unwelcome intervention? Don Ledingham’s Learning Log

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