Parental Engagement: Help Wanted?

Dad in school

The Australian education system resembles the UK’s in many ways – recently, and depressingly, by adopting policies which have already been proven not to work in the UK – but in at least one important area, they are leading the way, internationally.  I speak of their aspiration for greater parental engagement in schooling. I know of no other country where engaging parents is given such a high priority.

That said, I’m not convinced that the federal government is entirely clear on what they mean by parental engagement. And we ALL need to be clearer. Why? Because recent research suggests that home influence on student achievement varies between 60-80%, while the school accounts for only 20-40%.

Most information for parents, however, tends to focus upon what they can do at home to further their child’s learning. Relatively little work has been done on how parents can influence what goes on in school. And this seems to be a wasted opportunity.

So, I’ve been particularly privileged to be invited by the Australian Parents Council to run a series of sessions with parents and teachers investigating how they can work together to create ‘an education worth having’. I’m only a few days into a national tour, but I thought it might be useful to share some of the early findings.

The overwhelming sense I get is a mutual respect, between educator and parent, of their respective roles and responsibilities. But it’s been known for some time that educational outcomes for children are improved when we get beyond respect, and into relationships. And to do that demands honesty and a willingness to ask tough questions of each other. Why, for example, do schools and parents collude in the homework myth, when there is almost no evidence to show that it improves academic performance? Why do many teachers bemoan the lack of parental interest in what goes on in the classroom, but metaphorically lock the door to keep parents out? Why do  some parents demand that the school develops the ‘whole child’ but select their schools predominantly on the basis of published test-scores?

There’s a lot of work to be done to get beyond the perception of parents as fundraisers and cake-bakers (which has been their traditional input into the life of the school). In OPEN, I argued that schools needed to become ‘global learning commons’, seeing community organisations, parents and carers as active partners in a bigger moral purpose: preparing their kids for the world as it will be  in 10-15 years time, jointly engaged in purposeful work, shaping global citizens.

In Perth this week, I asked parents for their suggestions in building a more meaningful partnership. here are just  five of the most commonly voiced:

  • Greater parental access to classrooms during class time.
  • Being involved in making decisions, community collaboration, being educated in the teaching methods of the school
  • schools to provide a context and understanding of the objectives for homework
  • A shared understanding that teachers/schools are not the font of all knowledge – value the input of parents and community
  • Bring in parents to share their skills.

All of these are actionable, and when I worked with school principals the following day, they came up with many similar aspirations. So, what’s stopping us?

One clear blocker is the existing vehicle for school-parent communication: the parents evening, dismissed by parents as ‘the five-minute speed-dating exercise’. I’m yet to find a teacher who likes it either. So, get rid of it. How much better would it be to show, and interrogate student work, or to simply do what we did in Perth – talk about learning principles, show differing teaching approaches, discuss the skills kids will need in order to compete in a global employment market. At the end of the evening, I asked if anyone in the room had ever taken part in a similar meeting to learn about learning. Not a single hand went up.

This seems to be an opportunity spurned, and it’s really easy to fix. Real parental engagement, starts with a dialogue about learning, and the prized couldn’t be greater. As John Dewey said, “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” However, we should also remember Tagore’s advice: “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”

We can only determine what makes ‘an education worth having’ through schools, parents and communities working, and talking together. So, let’s get started. What have you done, as a parent, teacher or business/community representative, to help deepen parental engagement that we can learn from?


4 Responses to Parental Engagement: Help Wanted?

  1. 4c3d says:

    I agree with your point about the collusion regarding homework. Where homework is insisted on by parents it is sometimes an abdication of responsibility to engage with their children as learners themselves. Insisting somebody else sets it, marks it and punishes for it not being done is not the role of a “learning partner”; the role the parent should be taking.

    In my experience where the parent also acts as a learner there is a great deal to be gained from homework. Pretending you don’t know or understand and asking your child to explain or teach builds confidence, self esteem and reinforces the learning. Parent are well placed to develop depth and provide context for homework and even promote engagement if they understand what the focus of the homework is. A family outing can with the right direction provide valuable background knowledge for a topic. This requires an openness from the school about homework and an acceptance from parents that it may not always be relevant or necessary to set it.

    Supporting homework in the home can mean providing an alternative learning environment that better suits their children’s learning needs (not just the quiet room and a “Do not disturb” sign on the door either!). See this article for more on the learning environment and homework:

    My final point is that as some teachers have forgotten what it is like to be learners some parents remember all too well having had embarrassing moments at school themselves and can be reluctant to experience those emotions once again.

    Good luck in your work.

  2. Mary says:

    Being in Pnf is just a start… Helps with knowing what’s going on and show kids ur ‘involved’ and ‘interested’ in their learning and that u ‘contribute’ when you can…. Engagement happens everytime I help them with homework, everytime I ask them an open question and listen to their often funny and amazing answers…. I think I am much a learner from them as they have limitless and incredible minds…. I try to be aware of limiting their minds by speaking too much…. I feel like I’m engaging more with them when it requires me to ask open questions less because they are bursting to share their experiences of their school day I feel very blessed and grateful towards having them and every aspect of their school life…. I don’t criticise lack if this or that of their school teachers or school because every school is different, every teacher is different, And above all my child’s ability will be different!!!! What I expect is this if it is to be – its up to me…. I make it happen…. If I think something needs to change or improve I stay positive and actively engage in creating that change through learning…. The best place to learn is from my child’s experiences :)))

  3. Rebecca says:

    I agree with some of both the comments above in the fact that homework can reinforce the child’s learning from school if said child has asborbed the knowledge at school, if it has been taught in a way that the child will understand! I believe instead of being on P ‘n’ F though that the greater decision making power comes with being on the School Board of which I am a Parent Rep but that being said, for the amount of Parents in the school, all have differing issues and views to bring to the table so I also like the idea of having Parent Leaders/Reps for each classroom not each year level.

  4. Louise says:

    Thanks David, lucid and true. Rebecca, parent reps for each classroom a brilliant idea. I will suggest this to our governing council.

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