The importance of parent voiceFebruary 2016
With so much attention on teaching practice, policy decisions and student agency, it’s easy to forget one of the most influential stakeholders in a child’s schooling – the parents. JUDE BARBACK looks at the importance of making parents and whānau part of the education conversation.
"Well, she’s your responsibility from now on. You’ll have to deal with her.”
These were the words of Matilda’s father, Mr Wormwood, to her teacher, Miss Honey, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. While fictitious, they represent the attitude of some – fortunately the minority – parents of school-aged children. Parents can be placed broadly into two camps: the first being those who take an active interest in their child’s schooling and education and the second being those who don’t. Of course there is a spectrum, ranging from the overbearing to the outright absent, but in broad-brush terms, parents are either involved or they are inclined to ‘leave it to the school’ à la Mr Wormwood.
The traditional ‘in loco parentis’ approach to education that regards students as belonging to the school when at school and belonging to the parents when not is no longer relevant. However, while the culture is changing in some schools, the in loco parentis approach remains strong in others, particularly secondary schools.
Yet research shows that parents’ participation in their children’s education can have a significant effect on their achievement at school. According to Professor John Hattie, “parents need to hold high aspirations and expectations for their children, and schools need to work in partnership with parents to make their expectations appropriately high and challenging, and then work in partnership with children and the home to realise, and even surpass, these expectations”.
So what are we doing to ensure that parents feel fully included in their children’s education? How do we make sure parent voice is heard and valued at schools?
Inquiry into Engaging Parents
In 2013, there was an Education and Science Select Committee inquiry into engaging parents in the education of their children. The focus of the inquiry was to determine how well parents are engaged in the education of their children and what can be done to ensure more parents become engaged.
The committee received 79 submissions. In the New Zealand School Trustees Association’s submission, it was claimed that while many
New Zealand schools encourage parent participation, fewer genuinely engage parents, and many don’t encourage participation at all.
In its September 2015 edition of STAnews, the NZSTA discussed how parents will have their own perspectives on learning, teaching and schooling; how their insights warrant the attention and response of educators, and how parents should have opportunities to actively shape their children’s education. It outlined how parents must be given the confidence to know that their opinions, contributions, and values have a place in the student’s life at school.
Following the inquiry, the Education and Science Select Committee made
18 recommendations to the Government that collectively proposed to prioritise the importance of engaging parents and families throughout the education sector. Specifically, the committee recommended that teacher training and professional development incorporates parental engagement, and that the Education Review Office includes a function for reviewing parental and community engagement. It also recommended that the Ministry of Education develops best-practice guidelines for schools to use when developing effective approaches to engaging parents.
The Government accepted all 18 recommendations. In its response in January 2015 to the select committee’s report, it drew from national and international research to support the importance of parent, family and whānau engagement in children’s learning. It outlined that parents play a role as educators and as facilitators of learning, supporting their children by engaging with teachers and schools. It also discussed the importance of the expectations parents hold for their child to participate in and achieve at school.
Importance of parental aspirations
Recent research from ASG and Monash University reinforced the Government’s focus on parent participation. The inaugural ASG Parents Report Card 2015 investigated the state of education in New Zealand from parents’ perspectives and found that the aspirations that New Zealand parents have for their own children’s education is the strongest driver in their academic success.
ASG chief executive John Velegrinis gave the analogy of education as a three-legged stool, describing the three legs as the schools, the policymakers and the parents.
“The parents are a very important stakeholder in education, yet they don’t have as much of a voice as the other stakeholders.”
Velegrinis says the findings of the ASG Parents Report Card show that, generally speaking, New Zealand parents have an acute focus on, and understanding of, their child’s knowledge, skills and ability. This demonstrates the importance of schools, teachers and policymakers working together to model a more holistic approach to communicating with parents, he says.
“Parents hold incredibly important, often intangible, resources in contributing to their child’s educational success. The ASG Parents Report Card has found that parental aspirations for their children’s education is the glue that holds everything together – aspirations optimise and underpin all other resources and influences that support their children’s educational needs.”
Dr Shane Phillipson, associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University and co-author of the report, says regular communication about the importance of education from an early age helps children to feel supported and achieve their learning potential.
“Schools need to encourage parents to set high expectations from a young age. They need to communicate early and often that learning is fun and important.”
Parents in the dark about teaching methodology
The ASG report also highlighted that parents want to better understand school curriculum and teaching methods, but are generally positive about the quality of teaching.
“The education system has procedures in place to ensure parents and teachers are communicating on both behavioural and performance progress. However, there is a call from parents to be educated about the teaching methodology, so they can ensure they’re supporting their child’s education in the home setting,” said Phillipson.
Parental buy-in to curriculum and teaching methods is an area that could be improved across the globe.
The Harvard Family Research Project run out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education homed in on this issue. In one case study, one teacher told another: “Parents are rarely notified of the [curriculum] changes when they happen. Nor are they told about the benefits and challenges of the new curriculum or how to deal with it at home. Basically, the teachers have to spend the next few years demystifying and defending the programme to parents, hoping they will either embrace it or give up questioning it. By that time, we are changing the curriculum again anyway.”
Director of Maths Inspiration and BBC presenter Rob Eastaway shared a similar experience of struggling to help his daughter with her maths homework, which included problems vastly different from his own understanding of mathematics.
“Like most parents – numerate or otherwise – my first reaction to this was annoyance. Why have they changed it? Now my child gets cross when I try to explain using my methods. Is this why some people reckon the country’s maths is going to the dogs?”
And here in New Zealand, the Numeracy Project came under attack earlier this year, with part of the problem being attributed to a lack of parental understanding of the new maths teaching methods.
Arguably, one of the most surprising findings from the ASG report was that Kiwi parents had higher educational aspirations for their daughters than their sons.
Phillipson says this could be due to a perception that girls need to overcome more than boys to achieve highly in education.
Seventy per cent of parents with sons said they have to remind their children to study, compared with only 49 per cent of parents with daughters. Half of all parents of daughters agree their child will not stop until their homework is complete, compared with only 35 per cent of parents with boys.
There is also a difference between the perceptions of fathers and mothers, with 76 per cent of fathers perceiving their child to be high achievers, compared with 69 per cent of mothers. Fathers also believe more strongly that their children have more knowledge than other children the same age (73 per cent, compared with 60 per cent of mothers).
Phillipson says the next step will be to gain a better understanding of the impact of parental involvement in a student’s educational journey.
It is already well known how much impact variables such as teacher quality and curriculum quality have on educational outcomes, he says. A child’s intelligence, motivation and skills are also measurable. However, it is not so well known how much impact parental participation has on outcomes. This will be the next step in his research.
The good news for policymakers is that rolling out best practice in the area of parental participation need not be a costly exercise.
“It’s not a case of just pouring more money into schools. There is much more to it than that. There might be smarter, better ways of collaborating with key stakeholders to produce better outcomes,” says Phillipson.
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