A few years ago, I was talking to a boy in year 7. He was already in a programme to prevent him from being excluded, and he was telling me that he was trying hard to behave well. I asked if his teachers were pleased with his progress. His answer summed up my area of research and has stayed with me –

“Yeah, I guess it’s nice when your teachers are happy but your dad’s your dad!”

with a great deal of emphasis on the final word. Pleasing his teachers was okay but what motivated him, what was keeping him trying to behave, was his father’s approval.
It was a story we heard over and over again from the secondary students involved in that project [1]. What mattered to them was what their parents thought about schooling and education.

That this should be the case isn’t really surprising, as the literature had been saying this for a while [2]. Teenagers even told us how important it was that their parents asked how their days had gone – in spite of the fact that they had little intention of answering the question, it was important that it was asked, as this showed that their parents cared. (As a parent, whose own children rarely, if ever answered that question, I found that reassuring). The literature has been telling us for a long time that parents’ engagement is a vital part of children’s and young people’s learning.
In this post, I propose to do three main things. First, I want to look at why schools should be interested in parental engagement and what parental engagement with children’s learning really is; secondly, what benefits can come from this engagement, and finally, I want to take this opportunity to tell you about an ongoing research project we’re doing in this area.

My answer as to why we should be interested in engaging parents with their children’s learning is simple. We have a gap between the achievement of children from different backgrounds in this country, a gap which is appreciably larger than that in many other countries [3]. Schools have gone some way to narrowing the gap [4], but there remains more to be done. As I’ve argued for some time [5], the answer seems to lie outside of schools, as a very great deal of young people’s achievement is determined outside the school gates [6]. So, we have a problem – but how do we solve it?

The literature points the way forward – as See and Gorard have said, “Parental involvement in their child’s learning was the only area reviewed with sufficient evidence to meet the four criteria for a robust causal model….” [7, pg 7]. We need to stop throwing money and resources (including teachers’ time) at ideas and interventions that we aren’t sure will be effective, and concentrate on the areas where we have evidence of effect. (The evidence is not as strong as we might like, but it’s enough to convince…).

All of which is all very well, but what exactly is parental engagement with children’s learning and what forms of it are most effective in supporting learning? To put it simply – what happens in school with parents is ok, but what happens at home, between parents and children, is far more effective. Parental engagement with children’s learning – parents taking an interest in their children’s learning, talking to them about what they are learning, showing that they as parents value schools and schooling – is what will help raise achievement. Getting parents into school is fine but it’s a step on the journey, not the end point [8].

Parental engagement with children’s learning – when understood this way – can have positive effects on behaviour, attendance, engagement with learning and ultimately with children’s academic outcomes. [9]

It’s important to understand that what supports children’s learning is not that parents have all the answers to the homework questions (which becomes increasingly more difficult for parents to do, as children go up through the schooling system) but that parents care that the answers get found. It’s true that when parents have succeeded in the school system themselves, this has a sort of predictive power for their own children’s achievement – but prediction is not destiny, and one of the points about parental engagement is that it’s one of the ways we can break the cycle of underachievement which at the moment seems all too common in our schooling system.

A toolkit for parental engagement
And that brings me to the project we’re running at the moment with 34 schools in Wiltshire (and an increasing number of schools further afield). The project is a pilot of a toolkit which is meant to support schools as they support parents to engage with their children’s learning. As it stands now, the toolkit guides schools through an assessment of where they are, and deciding where they want to go and, importantly, how they will get there (including noting names of who is responsible and dates for completion) as well as how they will know that they have achieved these targets. The project has been running for about 10 months now and has just three months left to run.

Part of the project is to support schools as they themselves change their ideas of parental engagement from “getting lots of parents in to parents’ evening” to parents supporting their children’s learning at home (or in the car, or the supermarket…).
What we hadn’t anticipated at the start was how important school to school sharing would be in the project – recent discussions with school leaders have made it clear that this is one of the most valuable elements of the project. In May, when schools met, we held a “speed updating” session in which every school spoke with every other school, to see what they were doing, and how it was going.

What we’re finding
The project isn’t complete yet, but we’ve seen some fantastic results so far. One of the most heartening things is, oddly, that schools are abandoning the toolkit itself, not because they don’t need it but because the work of the toolkit has become embedded in other areas of the life of the school. One governor told us “It’s now just a standing item – we always thinking, “Is this an opportunity to engage parents?”.
We’ve seen a sea change in the schools in the project, who have moved from “getting parents in” to really working in partnership with parents to support children’s learning. Some of the practical things that schools are doing are highlighted on the project blog. These include “bacon butties and books” – getting dads in particular to join their children for breakfast at school and then to stay on and read with their children; making a commitment that staff would not stand together on the playground, as parents find it much easier to approach one teacher rather than two together, and asking parents to write a letter to the school and the child, saying why the parent is proud of the child, and what they think the school should know to help support the child’s learning.
Most of the things the schools are doing are simple and easy to implement. We’ve not suggested one idea or one way to “fix the problem”, though a head has recently told me that’s what they were hoping for on the first day last January. Rather, what schools are doing is taking the research about what parental engagement with children’s learning is, how important it is, and adapting that to their local situations and contexts.

It’s an ongoing process and will always be so – but then, that describes learning as well, so why should we expect that support for learning would be any different?

1. Harris, A. and J. Goodall, Engaging Parents in Raising Achievement. Do Parents Know They Matter? 2007, Department for Children, Schools and Families.
2. Desforges, C. and A. Abouchaar, The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: A literature review. 2003, Department of Education and Skills.
3. Zoido, P., How do some students overcome their socioeconomic background. PISA IN FOCUS, 2011. 5.
4. Children, S.t., Too Young to Fail. 2013, Save the Children: London.
5. Goodall, J., Re-thinking engagement, in Growing Engagement: Re-imaining relationships between schools, families and communities, Schools of Tomorrow, Editor. 2014, Schools for Tomorrow,: Peterborough. p. 8 – 19.
6. 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.
7. Gorard, S., B.H. See, and P. Davies, The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available at: jrf. org. uk/publications/aspirations-educational-attainment-participation, 2012.
8. Goodall, J. and C. Montgomery, Parental involvement to parental engagement: a continuum. Educational Review, 2013: p. 1-12.
9. Fan, W. and C.M. Williams, The effects of parental involvement on students’ academic self‐efficacy, engagement and intrinsic motivation. Educational Psychology, 2010. 30(1): p. 53-74.