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Parental Engagement: time for more rhetoric or meaningful change?

'Parental engagement in supporting learning in the home is the single most important changeable factor in student achievement' (Harris and Goodall 2007)

I have been thinking a lot about parental engagement recently. As part of some work with Connect (formerly SPTC), I have been helping develop and deliver some professional learning models around this crucial area of school work. As I have worked with colleagues, and read more, I have come to better understand the impact that deep meaningful change in this area could have, as well as how a lot of lip-service has been paid to true collaboration and engagement with parents, and the wider community, by schools and systems. This needs to change.

In Scotland the value of parental engagement has been widely recognised and is a key element of national and local policies. The work of Alma Harris and Janet Goodall is only part of a rich research base that has been used to inform policy and legislation. Work in Australia, Scotland the USA and other systems, all points towards the benefits of a healthy collaborative partnership  between schools, systems, parents and the wider community. I have been reminded of the African proverb 'It takes a village to educate a child' many times over the recent months. What African societies discovered experientially over time, has been confirmed many times by research evidence and outcomes across the globe over many years. Recently I listened to professor Bob Lingard speak about the impact on the system and schools in Queensland Australia through working collaboratively with parents and the community to enhance the learning and development of all learners. The research messages are informed and powerful, re-enforcing the African one above.

As already stated, in Scotland we have a whole raft of policies and strategies pointing to the importance of parental engagement in improving life-chances for all learners. The fact that a requirement to develop parental engagement practices is included in legislation, indicates the notice that policy makers have taken of the research and academic researchers such as Harris and Goodall. Both the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act of 2006 and the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act of 2004 were key pieces of legislation which championed support for parents being seen as active partners with schools in their children's education. Recently we have had the National Improvement Framework, Scottish Attainment Challenge, The Wood report, Getting It Right For Every Child, Curriculum for Excellence, the Education (Scotland) Act 2016, and a lot more, that have aimed to encourage schools and parents to engage collaboratively in order to better meet the needs of all learners. Further legislation is on the horizon too.

In Scotland, as in many systems, there are key policy 'drivers' that aim to support or promote parental engagement and partnership in education, but the other key intrinsic driver is the moral imperative we feel as teachers, to do the very best we can for every learner. We came into education to help all learners achieve their potential, we wish to raise attainment and achievement, eliminate barriers created by poverty or other factors, attempt to close gaps between different groups, promote the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of all and to make a positive difference for learners and families.

Both sets of drivers are important, but it is those moral imperatives, underpinned by values and ethics, that should push us further in continuing to develop meaningful, positive, collaborative relationships with all partners, especially parents. (It should be noted that I am using the term 'parents' to represent any adult or young person, who has a significant role in the life of a young person, or who carries out parenting roles.)

Yet, parental engagement still remains a vexious issue for many. Schools and teachers are still heard to complain that too many parents do not want to engage with them, or only when they have agendas, and many parents feel exactly the same way about schools and the system. I have recently seen many articles in the media, and threads on Twitter, where parents and others, are expressing their frustration with schools and the system overall. The fact that various groups have got together to fight against aspects of the system which they feel work against the best interests of children and families, as well as the rise in home educated youngsters, is an indication of how many people feel alienated from the system and the schools which are meant to serve them. Issues currently being fought over in Scotland, include deferment of entry for youngest children, learning through play in the early years, standardised testing, the Named Person legislation, resourcing of schools, and so on. I am sure there are very similar issues that parents feel they have to fight for, railing against the system rather than working with it, in school systems across the planet.

I am equally sure that each system, just like Scotland, has statutes, policy and practice that has been designed to promote and enhance parental and community 'voice' in the system. Many, again like Scotland, will have an expectation that schools, and school leaders, will work closely with parents to achieve the best outcomes for all learners. Schools are expected to reflect their local contexts and to recognise the power of engagement with all partners. All of this legislation and policy is helpful, the trouble is, legislation and policy is made real by people. It is clear to me that mindsets need to change, and they need to change most in our system, schools and amongst many practitioners. Many of the behaviours and attitudes that still persist, are the cause of many of the barriers and frustrations faced by parents trying to engage to support young learners. They have developed over time, are often deeply ingrained and are hardly recognised by many.

Too often 'engagement' is defined and directed by what the system wants, or what individual schools decide they want. We still have too many who look to 'do engagement to' parents and the community rather than 'with' them. Of course, I recognise that many schools and individuals are doing great work in this area, achieving fantastic results, but there remain too many that allow fixed thinking and practices get in the way of achieving all they could. They may argue, they are too busy with other things, to find time for yet another area of focus, placing more demands on precious time. They are too swamped by their workload already, to be finding more time on building up relationships or engaging with parents, especially as so many of them don't want to get involved anyway. Such attitudes ignore, or fly in the face, of what research and evidence shows could be achieved.

Some schools, and some parents, struggle to understand the difference between 'involvement in' and 'engagement with. Parents can be involved in schools, attending events, volunteering, being on Parent Councils, and so on, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are engaged with the learning of their youngsters. Engagement is focused on parents and others being equipped to support the learning and holistic development of young learners, and developing the knowledge and experience to do so. Research by Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu for the Joseph Rowntree foundation in 2014 demonstrated the fallacy of believing that some parents do not hold the highest of aspirations for their children, when in fact the vast majority do. What many lack is the knowledge and the understanding from professionals to be able to support their children's learning and development. Many more want to be engaged, but don't know how. Both involvement and engagement of parents is desirable to achieve the best outcomes for learners, a lot of  parents need support to help them engage in a way that enhances the young learners learning, it is part of our professional role to provide this wherever we can.

What research is showing us is that if we want to achieve many of the professed aims of education, then by addressing partnership, involvement and collaboration, by creating cultures that recognise that such collaborative practices are everyone's responsibility, not just those with a title, we will be moving in the right direction. We should recognise that we can all can take steps to remove barriers and facilitate true partnership working to achieve the best possible outcomes for young people and families. Of course, we need parents to equally understand what we can do together, and what we can't, but I think the onus lies firmly and squarely on the profession to take those first steps towards where we need to get to. If neither parents nor teachers are engaging meaningfully with each other, it is hard to see how either group is going to break down barriers or support each other, to better support the learning of our young students.

This is not about the profession and teachers doing more. Perhaps the first step is for schools to recognise the impact of such engagement, prioritise it, then create the space to work towards agreed collaborative goals. It may well be that many of these can be led by parents, around what they feel would help all learners. It is not about all the work identified, being done by teachers or school staff. This needs to be a true shared-endeavour, not more lip service. For us to get to that point, we need to start taking meaningful steps forward, remove barriers to engagement, build bridges of collaboration, accepting all the while that this will take time. We also need to start from where we are, not some false generic starting point identified by others.

I believe that addressing collaborative working and partnerships that I have described, is an effective, impactful and cost-effective way of improving what we do, whilst re-shaping our schools and systems in ways that have benefits for all, learners, teachers, leaders, systems, parents and communities. We have a duty to both harness and release the power of true collaborative engagement, rather than maintaining traditional hierarchies and top-down direction that still persist in many schools and systems.

(If you want to find out more about how you may develop such collaboration, and are located in Scotland, please get in touch with Connect at


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