This short article will help you understand what parental engagement is (and is not), and how-to best support parents to support their children’s learning.
Throughout this article, please keep three questions in mind:
First, what are you already doing in this area? There’s a great deal of good work out there – congratulate yourself and your colleagues when you’re doing well!
Second, what are you doing that could be simply tweaked or changed to be more effective? Most teachers are very able to adapt ideas from one setting to another, or to change things just a bit to make them work better.
And finally, what are you not doing at all, that you could start doing? What would be useful for your parents and students?
It’s also important to note at the outset that when I say, ‘parents’, I mean any adult with a caring responsibility for a child – so that could include carers, siblings, grandparents, other family members or a whole host of others.
Moving on to the main point – why is it important to engage parents in children’s learning? The simple point is we have a gap in the UK between the achievement of children from different backgrounds, and most of that gap is due to things that happen outside of school . We also know that many of our children – more than a quarter of them – are growing up in poverty . Children from economically challenged backgrounds are more likely to leave school without qualifications, and to leave school early . Older literature would also suggest that children and families in poverty have lower educational aspirations – but newer literature makes it clear that this is not the case [4, 5]; what many families lack is not aspirations, but rather the scaffolding to make those aspirations come true.
Moreover, the risks are cyclic: children growing up in poverty, and/or children who do not succeed in schooling, are likely to find that their own children have the same experiences .
What we also know, as shown by the idea above that most of the difference happens outside of school, is that schools and settings alone cannot change things for students. There are some ideas that often crop up in schools that we need to examine, and change, if we’re going to support all of our children as well as we can. The research has shown, again and again, that what’s important is that parents engage with their children’s learning. It doesn’t matter whether the parents did well at school themselves; what matters that they care that their children are learning [6-8].
It’s important, however, to be clear what we mean by ‘parental engagement’. Getting parents into school is fine – but it’s unlikely to help the students who are most vulnerable. When we spoke to teenagers about what would support their learning the most, they said what they wanted from their parents was moral support . Parents can be involved with schools (parents’ evenings, for example), or with schooling (helping with homework) but what will make the difference is engaging with learning – at home, in the car, wherever they happen to be with their children .
Doing this requires that we think again about how learning, education and schooling are related. Learning starts when we’re born (at least) and goes on through our entire lives. Education could be defined as ‘learning with rules’ or ‘with formality’ and would include learning to play a sport or an instrument. Schooling is a much smaller subset of these three: we need to stop equating ‘learning’ with schooling. Learning can happen, and be supported, everywhere .
We also need to move our emphasis away from the school and back to learning: after all, that’s why schools exist in the first place. Think about your school policies – do you have a School Improvement Plan? Why? Why improve the school? The emphasis needs to be on learning – it would be much more effective to have a Learning Improvement Plan .
To sum up, there are some messages to take away:
For parents: What’s important is not that you know the answer to any questions, but rather that you care that the answers get found.
Tell your child you are interested in their learning – share what you’ve learned.
You don’t have to understand exactly what they’re learning – ask them to tell you about it.
Keep asking how their day went!
For school leaders:
It’s vital that you lead the way for authentic parental engagement: not just ‘getting parents in’.
Stop talking about ‘hard to reach parents’ and think about whether or not it’s the school that’s hard to reach – what barriers to parents face?
Don’t assume what your parents need – ask them, work with them.
Look for practical strategies to support parental engagement [See: 12 for ideas on how to go about this].
We need to go beyond just giving information to parents or asking them for information; we need schools and families (and communities) to work together in partnership if we want to truly support all of our children.
About the author
Dr Janet Goodall is employed as a Lecturer within the Department of Education at the University of Bath where she lectures in educational leadership and management. Dr Goodall has collaborated with schools and local authorities on the subject of parental engagement in children’s learning over the past decade and is also widely published in the subject, both academically and in popular literature. In 2010, she co-authored the DfE research report, ‘Review of best practice in parental engagement’.
1. Rasbash, J., et al., Children's educational progress: partitioning family, school and area effects. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society), 2010. 173(3): p. 657-682.
2. Child Poverty Action Group, Child Poverty in the UK: A Few Facts. 2015, Child Poverty Action Group.
3. Save the Children, Too Young to Fail. 2013, Save the Children: London.
4. Treanor, M.C., Can we put the poverty of aspirations myth to bed now? 2017.
5. Goodall, J., Parental engagement and deficit discourses: absolving the system and solving parents. Educational Review, 2019: p. 1-13.
6. Sylva, K., et al., The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Technical Paper 12 - The Final Report: Effective Pre-School Education. 2004, DfES / Institute of Education, University of London: London.
7. Goodall, J. and J. Vorhaus, Review of best practice in parental engagement. 2011, Department of Education London.
8. Harris, A. and J. Goodall, Engaging Parents in Raising Achievement. Do Parents Know They Matter? 2007, Department for Children, Schools and Families.
9. Goodall, J. and C. Montgomery, Parental involvement to parental engagement: a continuum. Educational Review, 2013: p. 1-12.
10. Goodall, J., Narrowing The Achievement Gap: Parental Engagement With Children’s Learning 2017, London: Routledge.
11. Goodall, J., R.I.P. School Improvement Plans, in Te@cher Toolkit. 2017.
12. Goodall, J. and K. Weston, 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Engaging Parents. 100 Tips for Teachers. 2018, London: Bloomsbury.