TESS Article 14: Parents make the difference

I recently came across an interesting research paper* into the impact of parental involvement on children’s achievement and adjustment which confirmed my long held belief 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.”

In fact research has shown that parental involvement has a more significant effect than schools on children’s achievement and adjustment, even after all other factors (such as social class, maternal education and poverty) have been taken out of the equation between children’s aptitudes and their achievement.

It’s worth unpicking that assertion a little further to understand the implications of such a seemingly innocent statement – which to all intents and purposes has the power to undermine the edifice of  the schooling process. For what research seems to be revealing to us is that the education system can do little to impact upon the achievements of a child beyond that which can be more accurately predetermined by the extent of parental involvement in the child’s development.

If parental involvement is such a significant factor surely the holy grail in educational terms must be when these two elements of 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 (although not unknown) for schools to engage in any of the other aspects which might be seen to be “beyond our sphere of influence”.

The problem facing schools is that research has also shown that top down intervention projects aimed at “fixing” parents are almost inevitably doomed to failure. The “deficit model”, i.e. “we are the educationalists and we’ll show you how to educate our child” serves no more than to get up the nose of those whom we set out to help. What has been proven to work are approaches which sets out to establish an equitable partnership with parents and carers and creates an environment where parents spontaneously become involved in the child’s development.

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?

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 considered 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/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 depend on valuing the existing family strengths and that we don’t 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.

*Desforges, C and Abouchaar. A, 2003,  The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: A Literature Review. Department of Education and Skills, Research Report RR433




2 thoughts on “TESS Article 14: Parents make the difference

  1. Hello Don
    I’m just about to submit an article to Early Years Educator entitled ‘Our parents aren’t interested – dig deeper and you may be surprised’. There must be something in the air or maybe great minds think alike.

  2. I completely agree that a step change is needed but I’ve been thinking about where you see that step change being and I don’t think that gets over the hurdle of the gap between parents/carers and teachers. Parent/carers supporting others is a magical thing when it happens and we have seen that many times in Forthview, particularly in Tracey’s personal development and emotional literacy courses/groups for women. However such support doesn’t usually centre around the children’s learning or supporting each other to engage with school.

    The step change I see needed is that of the attitude of schools and teachers and surely this is where we can impact as leaders. If all school staff embraced the ‘3 core conditions for human growth’, as set out by Carl Rodgers of unconditional human regard, empathy and genuiness (towards families), that would be the foundation stone of allowing a true and equitable partnership with parents and carers.

    It doesn’t have to take money. It’s about attitude and a willingness to give time to this. It’s often said that it’s OK for us at Forthview, we have a teacher dedicated to doing this work. That does frustrate us because we only have this teacher because we choose actively as a staff and parent body to commit the funding to having Tracey do this work. We have the same budgets as others but make an active budget choice because we believe that our partnership with parents and carers does exactly what your article says; it makes a difference in parental involvement that has a much bigger impact on achievement than differences associated with the effects of school in the primary age range.

    When I was a DHT, part of my remit was to develop partnerships with parents. In that very busy post in another challenging school, we enabled a school of 220 pupils to have 3030 face to face contacts with parents and carers over the course of one year. It can be done without money if there is a willingness and a belief that this is crucial to children’s learning and development.

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