Parental Involvement: When does support turn into unwelcome intervention?

The comments I’ve received in the last week in response to my post on parental involvement  in the education of their children have been exceptionally useful in helping me to begin to clarify my own position on this critically important issue.

It’s worth quoting again the finding 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.

The holy grail in educational terms must be when these two elements, ie, parental involvement and the schooling process, operate at the optimum level, come into alignment and complement each other to enable a child to achieve at the highest level possible.

There would appear to be five inter-connected challenges presented by such a seemingly simple aspiration:

  1. The quality of education provided by the school
  2. The extent to which parents are equipped with the skills, have the knowledge, or the inclination to be able to provide the level of home support which makes the difference;
  3. The variation in the challenges facing parents in terms of their home circumstances to enable them to contribute fully to their child’s education.
  4. The quality and commitment to communicate (two-way) with parents about the educational process necessary to establish a constructive partnership; and
  5. The extent to which parents are equipped with the confidence, knowledge or inclination to actively engage with their child’s school.

In the traditional educational environment the school will tend to focus upon Number 1. i.e. trying to improve the level at which they operate, and Number 4. i.e. establishing communication channels with parents. Aside from these aspects it is relatively rare for schools to engage in any of the other aspects which might be seen to be “beyond our sphere of influence”.

In the paper I referred to in my last post it was clear that “spontaneous” parental involvement, was much more effective than the “top down” intervention approach. Sheila Laing countered that with a superb example:

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. 

It’s worth quoting Sheila again when she describes the “wealth model” for family learning:

………..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.

Sheila obviously speaks with passion, knowledge and experience in relation to this matter and we would do well to heed her advice.  Of course other schools may well say how do we replicate this if we can’t afford to employ a dedicated teacher to do this?  All too often good ideas never get beyond this stage if they are seen to be dependent upon additional resources.

For me so much could be achieved by a shift in our focus to address all of the challenges I set out earlier.  But how can a school with limited resources extend beyond the already stretched boundaries of educational involvement.  It’s at this point that I wonder if we could tap into the community resource provided by the parental body and beyond?

I’ve always been impressed by the Home-Start concept where trained volunteers help to increase the confidence and independence of families by:

  • Visiting families in their own homes to offer support, friendship and practical assistance
  • Reassuring parents that their childcare problems are not unusual or unique
  • Encouraging parents’ strengths and emotional well-being for the ultimate benefit of their children
  • Trying to get the fun back into family life

The Home-Start model focuses upon families who are experiencing a level of vulnerability for whatever reason.  But the concept of volunteer support is one which interests me.

On an educational level Family Learningwould seem to have very exciting potential and has made a significant impact in Edinburgh.  This quotation from Professor Elsa Auerbach captures the approach and underpins much of Sheila Laing’s work.

“Family Learning in Edinburgh is an exemplary model of building on family strengths in order to address the challenges they face. Based on a recognition of the key role of the shaping of the socio-economic context in shaping possibilities for families and communities, it is grounded in the view that families can only challenge the forces which shape their lives when their strengths and cultural practices are valued. As such, it enacts an empowering approach to family learning.”

The Home-Start and Family Learning Approaches have much to commend them and I will continue to research both areas. But might it be possible for a school to establish a model of practice which enabled parents to “pass on” their parenting skills to the next generation of parents (in this sense I’m talking about school generations, i.e. 4-6 years)? 

My idea – for what it’s worth – is to suggest that a school creates an environment which is dedicated to seeing the educational process as a true partnership in the education of the child between the school and the parents. Now let me admit at this point that I’ve used such a phrase on many previous occasions both as a Head Teacher and Head of Education – but what I have in mind is a step change beyond what I’ve imagined in the past.

There would be many elements to such a partnership which would involve the use of technology to open up classrooms, very different forms of parental inter-action with the school and teachers and a shift in the balance for responsibility for parental involvement in education matters from the school to the parents (I’m not advocating that school abdicate responsibility for this area – just shift the balance). 

The practical idea I have in mind to go along with such a shift would be to create a buddy/supporter/advocate/befriender system where a more experienced parent – who’s been through the system – would link with a less-experienced parent to provide support and a listening ear.

The key to the success of such a venture would be in line with the view expressed by Elsa Auerbach where the existing family strengths are valued and we don’t set out to “fix” them because they don’t conform to what we believe are the “correct” way to bring up kids.  Obviously such an approach is fraught with difficulties and training would be required. But I don’t see this approach only being of benefit to those families who might be regarded as “vulnerable”. Many parents would benefit from the support of someone – “who’s been this way before”.

Above all else such an approach shifts the existing power relationship in schools where it’s the school or the authority who set out to develop parental partnership strategies – the model I have in mind is one where it is the community itself which sets out to support itself.

Last point – and it’s taken some to get here – relates to the title of this post.  The huge challenge presented by the model I’m suggesting is that it might only serve  to create another “top down” intervention process in different form – as opposed to model where parents feel they are welcomed into a “family” where they are valued for themselves.


1 thought on “Parental Involvement: When does support turn into unwelcome intervention?

  1. Sheila seems to point us in the right direction when she says active listening is important.
    Person -centredness is key again!

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