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Encouraging Parental Engagement

An interview with Dr Janet Goodall, Institute of Education

Published November 2011

What’s the best way to encourage parents to get involved with their children’s education? Dr Janet Goodall from Warwick’s Institute of Education was part of a team commissioned by the government to identify models of good practice from research studies undertaken over the world. She explains why parental engagement is vital and how teachers can facilitate it.

Reading with your children at home. Listening to their questions and supporting them to find their own answers. Taking an interest in what they are learning at school. All of these activities are beneficial to a child’s educational progress. Previous research done in 2003 concluded that the best way to increase children’s achievement is to improve parental engagement. There was, however, little information on how to do it well.

Books and an apple

Dr Janet Goodall and her colleagues were tasked by the previous Labour government’s Department for Schools, Children and Families (now renamed the Department for Education by the coalition government) to analyse research studies on the subject and evaluate impact. The team wanted to find models of good practice. How can teachers best encourage reluctant parents to take an interest in their children’s learning? We know from previous research that parental engagement vastly improves the attainment and literacy of children from ethnic minorities. The question is – why?

As part of the methodology Dr Goodall searched databases to find relevant studies and “read an awful lot of abstracts”. She had to make judgements about the research in order to select the studies. Criteria included that the research had to show impact and data had to be reliable – studies with small sample sizes were rarely included.

What was difficult was to prove correlation between changing something in a classroom and improved results. A lot of research showed children’s motivation but Dr Goodall and the team needed to find out what caused this change. Family background had to be taken into account. Throughout the studies one thing resounded loud and clear: the best way to raise children’s aspirations is to raise their parents’.

What exactly is the definition of parental engagement? Dr Goodall explains that it covers parents’ attitudes towards their children’s learning both at home and at school. At a basic level, parental engagement is taking an interest in what's going on at school and the things that their children are studying. A simple way for parents to express an interest, she says, is to change the question from “What did you do today?” to “What did you learn today?”

A simple way for parents to express an interest is to change the question from “What did you do today?” to “What did you learn today?”

The DfE has published the final report on its website and the practitioners’ summary section includes key advice for teachers and other educational professionals. “Schools need to find what parental engagement is and make a broad definition of it.” It is not just parents coming into school and shouldn’t just be an activity done by a core group of committed parents. All parents can get involved regardless of their gender, background or the level of education achieved themselves.

Schools need to get to know the parents and tailor their parental engagement strategy around parental needs. Sending reams of text home, for example, will not be suitable for families with literacy or EAL (English as an Additional Language) issues. “Family and community learning are incredibly powerful,” says Dr Goodall. A trusted way to increase parental engagement is to encourage parents to learn alongside their children. Strategies suggested by Dr Goodall include sending disposable cameras home with children to take photos with their parents for a school project; inviting parents into school to talk about what they do; parents coming into school and helping with projects like building a racing car and inspiring parents to help their children learn in everyday situations such as looking at weights and measures of produce in the supermarket.

Most schools try to encourage parental engagement. This study is about “moving that process on”. The focus is not on supporting the school but supporting the child. If parents think that learning is important, then their children will too. Says Dr Goodall, “Children want moral support and their parents to be interested in their learning. Surveys have shown this. They want to know that their parents care about their schoolwork."

What is the main message to give to parents? Dr Goodall is unequivocal in her answer. “Believe that what they do is important even when their teenagers tell them it’s not.” Her next research will expand her work on religious engagement by looking to see if parental religious belief has an impact on their children’s learning.

Key points from the report’s practitioners’ summary:

  • It is a priority for schools to identify interventions that are effective in supporting parental engagement, particularly for those parents who are not significantly involved in their children’s education.
  • A significant challenge is reaching and involving parents who have chosen not to engage either with their children’s school or with their children’s learning. A related challenge is finding the most appropriate methods for identifying what parents want and need. Some home-school activities can be resource intensive.
  • Partnerships present challenges to sharing data. Information was not always shared across partners, or communicated at points of transition from one location or school to another. It is a priority for local authorities to share their data and knowledge of local communities more systematically, and for schools and children’s centres to explore how best to transfer information between locations.

Janet GoodallJanet Goodall holds an EdD from the University of Nottingham. At Warwick her research interestes include school leadership, policy and development; parental engagement; networks/federations of schools; and CPD and its evaluation.

Recently, much of her work has concentrated around parental engagement in children's learning, leading to a report for the DCSF (now the DfE) and a literature review for Save the Children, which led the way for the charity's £5 million investment in the UK.

She is currently working on a research project investigating the links (if any) between parents' religious or spiritual beliefs and their engagement in children's learning.