Family comes first. With a heady mix of love and selfishness, ambition and hope, parents guard and support their children. It is no real surprise then to read in the latest Sutton Trust report – labelled ‘Parent Power’ – that many parents take direct action when it comes to the schooling of their children.
The news headlines have unsurprisingly focused on reporting the more “dubious tactics”, such as buying or renting second homes to get their brethren into the best schools, but there is guidance and insight for schools, and those who make policy for schools, alike.
The report characterises how parents help their offspring and the differences between families of different socioeconomic status. The findings are rather unsurprising: parents from higher socioeconomic background were much more likely to to exercise their‘parent power’ by attending open days, supporting homework, reading OFSTED reports, reading league tables or or educational websites, or paying for additional tuition.
‘Pushy parents’ or ‘actively engaged’?
I am the parent of two school-age children. I am also an ‘actively engaged’ parent – though hopefully not of the “pushy” variety (though Tom Sherrington is right in arguing we should learn from such parents). There is no doubt it gives you a different perspective on education and having sat on both sides of the parents’ evening desk, I understand the many obvious, and more subtle, benefits of parent power.
Like most parents – from all social backgrounds according to the Sutton Trust research – I regularly help my children with their homework. I would fulfil the criteria of helping with homework “very regularly” that appears to separate out more ‘privileged parents’ as characterised in the report. Not only that, I can ‘play the game’. For example, I know about work experience, I feel confident about contacting school, I could read about schools and unpick their league table status and similar. I can pay for music lessons, buy sports kit, ICT equipment, and more.
Importantly, when it comes to learning I know when my child is struggling and when they need extra support. In many cases, we can help at home. It runs parallel with the report that indicates the common use of private tuition and other such bolt-on extras that secure a kids’ middle-class advantage.
Given how the dice of advantage is so weighted by such family support factors, it is crucial that our society should ensure that young children with the least of such advantages should be supported most.
What is a school to do?
The critical problem that schools really grapple with is not the ‘pushy parent’ arguing the toss about a uniform change, it is the pupil (un)represented by the perennial empty chair at parents’ evening. Though we cannot remove the advantages freely exercised by some parents, we have do our best to connect with parents who do not, and cannot, play the ‘education game’.
Alongside helpful structural changes to admissions, and recommendations like ‘homework clubs’, the Sutton Trust goes on to suggest a “whole school” approach to communicating with parents. But what does this mean? In research conducted for the DfE, Janet Goodall recommends doing a “parental needs analysis” to ascertain what parents already do, alongside what support is required, could prove a good start for such an approach. Evidence from the EEF, labelled the ‘Parental Engagement Project (PEP), showed that texting parents about upcoming tests and homework made a positive impact on maths and English attainment, as well as reducing absenteeism. Such small nudges are manageable for every school.
We too easily assume that teachers are trained to communicate successfully with a range of parents. In my experience, this seldom happens. Whether it is a “pushy parent”, or parents that are hard to reach or disengaged, we need to ensure contact with school flourishes as a result of whole-school training and support (this National Strategies tool – a ‘framework for structured conversations’– is really useful to help teachers communicate at the school gate or on the phone with parents).
Schools need to be supported to develop (and in some cases fund) such a ‘whole school’ approach. We have knowledge to draw upon, from this DfE summary on parental involvement,this National College of teaching report on ‘how to involve hard to reach parents’, the EEF Toolkit page on ‘Parental Engagement’, and now this Sutton Trust report on the ‘Power of Parents’.
Finally, we know that schools may play the role ‘in loco parentis’, but they cannot equalize the series of advantages exerted by more ‘actively engaged’ parents. If we cut at the fabric of social care, youth services, mental health services, and more, as well, then many schools will be mired in a fire-fight, rather than being able to mobilise a successful “whole school” approach to parental engagement.