Parents exist, ok!? Issues and Visions for Parent-School Relationships

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Institute for Public Policy Research

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Issues and Visions for Parent-School Relationships

Joe Hallgarten

September 2000 £10.95
available from Central Books, 99 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN

tel: 020 8986 5488 fax: 020 8533 5821
Across the world new efforts are being made to encourage parental involvement in their children’s learning and strengthen home-school links. This book explores current and future challenges and opportunities for the relationships between parents and their children’s schools. The recommendations have one underlying vision of parents as citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities that this entails. For this to occur, power relations between professionals and parents need to be transformed. The ultimate vision is of schools as citizenship banks, where forms of participation and support can be invested, deposited and withdrawn by families and by the wider community. The policy proposals are based on the premise that the onus for change to improve parent-school relationships must fall onto the school, not the parent. The aim should be to create family-like schools, in all their shades of diversity and complexity, not school-like families.
The Political Context

‘The involvement of the family in the learning process and the links between home and school are vital to the success we are seeking in raising standards and providing real equality of opportunity.’ David Blunkett, 1998

New Labour’s commitment to raising parents’ aspirations for and engagement in their children’s learning is not in doubt. Parental involvement is seen as a distinct, possibly irreplaceable, influence on children and schools. In many ways, their policies build on those of the previous government, whose interest in the greater participation of parents was expressed through their Parents’ Charters. However, there has been a substantial change of emphasis. The role of parents as consumers has been given far less attention. Resources to encourage parental involvement are skewed towards areas where pupils and parents are most at risk of disaffection from learning in general and schools in particular.

Good home-school relationships are probably more dependent on policies that may not be directly related to parental involvement. In education, this government has reacted to decades of underinvestment and underachievement with sustained pressure on and support for schools to raise attainment. Schools appear to be succeeding on a number of indicators. However, many educators feel forced by the understandable urgency of the government’s standards agenda to focus on short-term improvement strategies. For all the rhetoric about encouraging home-school links, the reality, revealed by so many of the people we spoke to during the project, is that many schools have relegated parents down their list of priorities. As one headteacher said, ‘home-school links is the long game; you may not see the benefits for years.’

At the same time, public policy towards the family itself is changing. There is, in contrast with the previous administration, an acceptance of the diversity of family structures. There is also a concerted effort to lift all families out of poverty. In comparison with their education policies, the family policies of this government appear far more enabling and less prescriptive. It is not accidental that the two major policy papers on families and schools were called Supporting Families and Excellence in Schools.

This book aims to create policies suitable for a new phase of education reform, where the success of most if not all of the ‘top-down’ reforms should hopefully have created the conditions for achievable bottom-up change. ‘Intervention in inverse proportion to success’, as espoused in Excellence in Schools, is the key opportunity for innovative, exciting models of home-school relationships. Home-school relationships should move up the hierarchy of educational priorities at all levels.

1 Do Parents Matter?

There are many factors that contribute towards creating an effective learner. What unites all the variables listed above is that parents have some influence, if not necessarily ownership or a feeling of control, over all of them.

Socio-economic status Household Choices

• parental social class • parenting styles

• parental education • involvement in learning

• parental employment • involvement in school

• family income

Genetic factors Family Structure

Peer group influences Community influences

Proving what appears obvious, that parents do matter, is often more difficult than challenging assumptions. Although the evidence base beyond the pre-school years is less secure than policy makers may assume, there is still good cause to agree that policies which successfully encourage parental involvement in pupils’ learning and in school life will contribute to the general raising of individual and school achievement.

The evidence becomes more problematic if the policy ambition is to redress equality of opportunities or reduce inequalities of educational outcomes between different pupils and different schools. Small-scale targeted projects show that engaging parents can be a key protective barrier against socio-economic conditions that can breed underachievement. Yet in its current condition, parental involvement in children’s learning and schools is normally less of a protective barrier than a lever to maximise the potential of the already advantaged.

Even if the importance of parental involvement is taken as a fact, this poses as many questions as it answers. A child can, with family or individual effort, achieve his potential in spite of his school. Yet is the reverse also true? Can a child achieve his potential unless his parent is a partner in his learning? If schools become increasingly structured to rely on parental involvement, then are schools simultaneously structured to reinforce existing inequalities in levels of parental involvement? Such involvement is certainly distinct, and difficult to replicate in the school setting. Is it irreplaceable? A key question needs to be answered: How can the education service be structured to enable as many children as possible can achieve their potential, whether assisted or hindered by their family situation?

2 Changing Family and School Contexts

Changes in family and employment patterns are having a huge impact on the context in which home-school relations are framed:

• Schools are catering for an ever-diversifying range of family structures and situations.

• In an increasing number of families, there is no single main adult contact between home and school, or that contact may not be a child’s parent.

• More than two decades of rising material inequalities between families are continuing to increase inequalities in the learning resources of children from birth onwards.

• During the past two decades, schools have been teaching increasing number of children whose home lives range from being temporary disrupted to in near-permanent crisis.

• Opportunities for parental support for a child’s learning and school are being squeezed by time pressures, mainly work-related.

• Flexible employment patterns provide challenges and opportunities for parental interaction with schools.

• An increasing percentage of potential support for schools and learning is paternal. Schools also need to target home-school links at non-resident fathers.
Social and technological forces are also affecting the relationships between parents, children and schools:
• In terms of gender, changing parenting patterns have not kept pace with changing employment patterns. By targeting paternal involvement, schools could play a role in moving families towards greater gender equality in childcare.

• Parental involvement strategies may prove a huge waste of energy unless children are willing partners in the process. Schools need to consult closely with their pupils over home-school initiatives and policies.

• Schools are facing a wider variety of parenting strategies at all stages. In practice, some parents rely on schools for most of a child’s education; for others, attendance at school is a small part of a child’s organised learning programme.
Relationships within the trinity of parent, teacher and child have become increasingly complex, but the boundaries between professional and parent appear surprisingly stable. Although there is acceptance from both parents and teachers that their educational influences are difficult to unmesh, role confusion undoubtedly acts as a barrier to quality home-school relationships. Asking teachers to be parents and parents to be teachers is also a major cause of overload for parents, teachers and especially children. For this reason, the opportunity costs of any initiative described must be seriously evaluated.

3 Home-School Communication

Effective two-way communication is arguably the most important but least measurable factor in developing successful home-school partnerships. As with so many other professional-client relationships in public and private institutions, what schools call ‘communication’ often stretches no further than the transmission of information, and schools with excellent communication strategies still rarely reach all parents. The structures that schools create in order to communicate with parents beg two resonant efficiency and equity questions:

• How can schools and parents communicate necessary information whilst avoiding a counter-productive overload?

• How can schools ensure that their communication mechanisms are equally accessible to all parents, regardless of home factors?

There is no single strategy that can answer these questions. The overload issue for schools is more related to other communication pressures; perhaps a rule of thumb for any school’s communication should be that communication with parents should come first. All other information demands, whether from Ofsted, LEAs or the DfEE, should automatically be a lower priority.

As for equal access, this is more dependent on the atmosphere and culture of schools than formal mechanisms. This is also an area where useful resource and project levers can be pulled at supra-school levels.

Apart from complaints procedures, all of the recommendations for schools are made as optional suggestions. Schools should:

• consult with parents and pupils to establish a two-way complaints procedure by 2005

• reconsider their scheduling of progress reviews and annual reports

• ensure that all communication mechanisms are available to non-resident parents or other carers., including ‘part time parents’

• evaluate and consult on all communication structures to improve levels of two-way communication

• use home visits as an integral communication tool and as part of every teacher’s continuing professional development.

At the supra-school level LEAs and voluntary organisations should:

• support schools in improving communication to parents at transition points

• support schools in communicating with parents with low literacy levels or limited English

• offer free transport for parents in disadvantaged areas to attend progress reviews.

At the national level, the DfEE should:

• legislate for all schools to establish complaints procedures by 2005

• beyond this, add no further requirements to schools’ current statutory information obligations

• work with the Department of Trade and Industry to explore options for statutory paid leave to allow parents to attend progress reviews

• co-ordinate a campaign that encourages parents to inform their child’s school about any changes in family or other circumstances.
The Teacher Training Agency should give ‘communication with parents’ more time and status in all teacher training.

Further research is required on:

• how the target setting process and product can impact on pupil, parent and teacher motivations

• how schools can exploit the online facilities, including email, to improve two-way communication with parents

• the best ways that pupils whose parents cannot be encouraged to communicate with the school can, where necessary, be given compensatory time and resources.

4 School-Based Support

Previous sections have charted the legal rights and duties that families and schools have towards each other. Anything beyond this relationship, either with each other or with a child’s learning, occurs through exhortation, pressure, support and good will. It requires above all a recognition that a child’s potential as a learner, and a school’s potential as a learning institution, can only be reached if home-school relationships go far deeper than the compulsory. The chart below categorises the voluntary support that parents and schools can offer each other.


parental school

support support

for schools for families


At the extremes of this axis lie altruistic motivations; at one end, parental volunteerism that clearly benefits the school more than any individual child. At the other, ‘wrap-around’ support services for families that have far deeper objectives than the raising of a pupil’s achievement. Yet clearly, all of the activities can be mutually beneficial.

A central premise of this book’s proposals is all of these activities should remain voluntary. Parents cannot be pressganged into public participation in children’s learning and the wider social agenda is not one that can be forced on schools. Both, however, can clearly be facilitated and incentivised. Attitudes can be changed, but any increase in rights and duties should be self-generated.

More general conclusions that can be drawn are:

At the national and local levels:

• Nationally imposed initiatives should not demand or assume voluntary support.

• Family Learning activities should be diversified and targeted. National and LEA Standards Funds should be altered to:

- extend family learning beyond literacy and numeracy

- encourage parental involvement activities that deliberately target fathers, grandparents and childminders

- fund primary and secondary schools to collaborate in encouraging parental involvement at transition points

• Any funding bids for school-based activities that require voluntary parental support should require evidence of prior and intended parental consultation.

• An exam syllabus or a citizenship curriculum should be designed to stimulate the involvement of parents and secondary pupils in primary schools. For instance, pupils could assist groups during literacy and numeracy hours as a GCSE English or Maths module .

• The management of learning volunteers needs to be built into teacher training and continuing professional development.
At school level:

• Schools should have the right to refuse the voluntary support of any individuals or organisations.

• Parents who choose not to volunteer should not have second class access to any school resources, human or physical.

• Schools should investigate the idea of creating their own LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems). IPPR will be pursuing this idea in 2001.

• Schools should explore the opportunity to train and employ New Deal clients.
Further research is required on:

• the motivations of parents who do and do not choose to volunteer.

• the long term effectiveness of different family learning models.

• Out of hours learning and family support activities that successfully engage children and their parents.

5 Home-Based Support

However successful and comprehensive school-based mutual support becomes, the bulk of parental involvement in a child’s learning is likely to remain home-based. The dimensions of home-based learning can enhance and damage home-school relationships, asking searching questions about ownership and control of children’s learning. A central fear is that, if home learning becomes colonised as the evening and weekend outpost of schooling, this may dilute its unique qualities. The aim must be to mould the fabric of home learning to ensure that it retains its richness and diversity.

In many ways, home-based learning is moving in a positive direction. Most parents appear increasingly willing to be involved. ICT developments are creating exciting new opportunities for such involvement, although schools are in the awkward but potentially powerful position of straddling the digital divide. Family learning projects are supporting parents to engage with their children’s learning at home. And an enormous amount of resources is being given to fund alternatives for pupils with limited access to home learning resources or parental support.

Some issues remain. Teachers are acutely aware of the effects of overload, yet many may be in danger of overloading families in a similar fashion, adding to family stress or denying space for parent-initiated learning activities. The other issues that this chapter discussed require consideration at national, local and school levels:

• Both educational publishers and the government need to take responsibility to ensure that home learning activities are wide in range and do not merely replicate schooling.

• Homework clubs and other forms of study support should as far as possible aim to raise the motivation for parents to increase levels of home-based support.

The number of children being educated at home is likely to continue rising. Schools need to improve links with home schooled pupils. In addition, schools should actively encourage flexi-schooling as part of individualised learning. This might include pupils who are educated part-time at home, privately, or at supplementary schools. If learning is to become more flexible, there may even be opportunities for pupils to take a one-term sabbatical from school. During this time, pupils could be learning in a workplace, or engaged in ‘active citizenship’ activities
Further research is required on:

• what kind of parental support for homework is most productive under what circumstances. This is an ideal opportunity for teacher and parent-led research.

• how the use of ICT resources at home and school might impact on home-school relations.

6 Parental Choice

Although most children in the UK still attend their local school, the UK is a genuine ‘social laboratory’ in the sense that choice and competition have been given such status, especially compared to other EU countries. It is two decades since parents were given the right to express a preference for one school over another.

What have been the effects? Gorard’s conclusion, based on analyses of changes in school intakes, is that ‘the advent of choice may be truly both less beneficial than some advocates suggest, and less harmful than some critics fear’ appears correct. Evidence is still inconclusive as to whether choice policies and rhetoric have produced consumer-responsive schools, increased segregation, or fostered diversity.

However, there is also no doubt that, in certain neighbourhoods with certain characteristics, parental choice is breeding a collective panic; one that uses up irrational amounts of precious parental and school resources, and leads to social and racial polarisation. It also seems likely that the current strains caused by choice demands will continue to increase, as shown by the graph below.

We may be beginning to experience a ‘trickle-down effect’ of choice thinking, reducing the number of non-choosers. Indeed, new Labour’s emphasis on education, coupled with their explicit praising and shaming of schools may be increasing the number of parents who extend their sights beyond their nearest school. If so, the future pressures on popular and unpopular schools could be enormous.

Part of this government’s strategy is to make choice less of an issue, through the drive for excellence in all schools. Yet even if attainment is raised across schools, this does not imply that inequalities between schools will be reduced. Indeed, unlike in health, this is not a policy goal. It is likely that ever increasing numbers of parents will buy into the concept and practice of choice.

Policies are needed to ameliorate some of the injustices caused by choice in extreme situations. Choice needs to be rendered more equitable for both families and schools. One option is that a local admissions authority should be able to ringfence a percentage of every school’s intake, to be used, for instance, to spread the responsibilities for disaffected pupils between schools, or for children who cannot afford to move into a catchment area (with free travel). After this percentage, parental choice would have primacy. This ringfencing would be used at an admission authority’s discretion; in many areas, this would be totally unnecessary.

Another option involves selection by a lottery of all those within a large catchment area, giving financial incentives to encourage schools to attract a social mix of applicants.

Alternatively. if the state wished to increase the range of school choices, and drive in real bottom-up diversity, it may have no options other than to open the education market to the private and voluntary sectors, which may be prepared to bear the costs and risks of surplus places. Per-capita funding could be extended to any school, private public or voluntary. such a policy might not conflict with social justice goals, as long as this was done with three provisos:

• Schools could not ask parents to pay ‘top up fees’.

• All schools involved would be part of the admissions authorities described above.

• Some quality assurance mechanisms would be relaxed.
As well as a way in for the private and voluntary sectors, this would offer opportunities for parent-run schools with alternative educational philosophies. There are international precedents, for instance in the Netherlands and Denmark. As the ultimate form of parental choice and self-governance the idea of such state funded schools demands consideration, not as the Conservative solution for failing schools, but as an idea with huge social justice possibilities.

Admissions policies require a visionary outlook on the possible effects of an increasing parental demand for their choices to be met. A clear values question of whether the policy goal should be choice-driven or equity-driven needs to be debated. A second question remains whether the system should actively encourage a range of choices, through school diversity, or espouse the vision that the local choice should be the best choice. Given the importance of the idea of the neighbourhood in the government’s thinking on civic renewal, it seems logical that pupils should be encouraged to develop links with their most local school. This may not mean full time attendance. As schools develop specialisms and stay open for longer, ties could be developed in other ways.

The most important policy considerations stem not from what choice has done, but what it has not done. In particular, it has not increased parental influence over the nature and content of schools. The power of exit is proving a poor substitute for the power of voice.

7 Parental Voice

Of all the proposals relating to parents in Excellence in Schools, the suggestion that ‘parents should have a greater say in the way schools are run’ remains the least developed. Power relations between education services and their users appear to have remained remarkably static.

Our education system should experiment with new ways to give parents collective influences over education decision making. Voice is the unused bandwidth of parental involvement in their children’s learning. These recommendations are for consideration at all levels:

• Schools should be encouraged but not coerced to experiment with parental participation in decision making. Examples could include class councils (as exist throughout Europe), forums, or steering groups on certain issues.

• A strand of the DfEE’s Standards Fund should be dedicated to ‘parental participation’, to enable schools to bid for resources to do this.

• Space should be found at all levels for parent-only discussions and bodies.

• Any strategy to encourage parental participation in decision making must aim to be inclusive and deliberately target groups that are likely to be underrepresented.

• Schools that experiment with new forms of governance, for instance City Academies, should be required to create structures that increase parental participation.

• Future changes to the National Curriculum should aim to ensure that a percentage of every school’s time is ringfenced, to be used at a school’s discretion in consultation with all education stakeholders.

• Ofsted should consider the following options to allow parents to play a fuller part in the process:

- deliberative consultation using focus groups, panels or innovative self-evaluation methods

- an additional parents meeting after an inspection, so that parents are consulted on a ‘first draft’

• The government should consider whether consultation with parents should have a statutory role in the performance management process.

• If a third round of EAZs occurs, bids should show greater evidence of consultation with parents, teachers and pupils.

• The government should create a National Parents’ Council.

8 A Framework for Whole-School Change

The most important way that schools can be supported at the national level to improve relationships with parents is to encourage innovation through targeted resources. One approach would be to develop an ‘investors in parents’ programme, or build similar criteria into any school’s ‘investors in people’ status.

There must be a central space within Local Education Authorities’ future, probably streamlined role, for the support of home-school initiatives. Other recommendations are:

• Schools need to develop policies and practices that are flexible and dynamic, to meet the shifting needs of diverse families.

• Schools who do wish parents to be at the centre of the educational process may need to restructure themselves as institutions.

• Schools must also maintain a balance between the perceived need for increased school security and the desire for a school to be as welcoming as possible.

• Training to develop home-school links should be given far greater priority in all teacher training, especially at the ‘early professional development’ stage.

• Teachers should be able to specialise in parental involvement, either as an alternative to a subject specialism at primary level, or as an additional secondary specialism.

• All professionals working with children, including teachers, social workers and youth workers, should undergo some common multi-agency training, to encourage networking and enable them to understand the diverse needs of families.

• Funding streams should be made available for schools to employ home-school link workers, to act as neutral brokers between schools and families. This resource should be automatically available to schools in disadvantaged areas, with a separate fund for all other schools to bid for funding for such a post. Joint bids from groups of schools should be encouraged.
IPPR welcomes comments on this summary and its recommendations. Contact

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