In the primary age range, the impact caused by different levels of parental engagement is much bigger than variations in the quality of schools. The scale of this impact is evident across all social classes and ethnic groups.
Closing gaps in achievement is an ongoing priority for all schools. Over many decades, both national attainment data and research findings have consistently shown that, on average, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve well below their more advantaged peers. In this context, disadvantage is defined as coming from a low income family and, for schools, this translates into specific funding for the Pupil Premium linked to entitlement to Free School Meals.
In 2014, a review from the National Education Trust summarised current successful practice by schools in terms of closing achievement gaps through the use of the Pupil Premium (A Practical Guide to the Pupil Premium, NET 2014). The report also acknowledged the challenges faced by schools, as summarised by the author in his blog:
Overcoming the achievement gap is challenging. There are no quick fixes. Closing the gap requires risk taking and taking people out of comfort zones, but in a system where currently just a third of poorer pupils make the grade, we cannot afford to do nothing.
Marc Rowland, Deputy Director, National Education Trust
A theme in both this report, the findings of Ofsted, and recurring in research over time points to the importance of engaging parents, carers and families in their children’s learning, especially up to the age of 11.
Key research summaries indicate that:
- children with parents who take an active interest in their education make greater progress than other children;
- in the primary years, family influences have a more powerful effect on children’s attainment and progress than school factors;
- parental engagement has a significant effect throughout a child’s school years. Gains in pupil achievement stemming from parental engagement initiatives tend to be permanent;
- in schools with matched intakes, those with strong parental engagement tend to do best. They have higher attainment and fewer problems with behaviour;
- levels of parental engagement are linked to socio-economic status, but in parenting it is what you do, not who you are that counts;
- even where families live in poverty children can achieve if their parents are involved and committed to their child’s education;
- home-based factors that make the strongest contribution to the child’s achievement in the primary years include the extent of one-to-one interaction between parent and child, and parental involvement in educational activities and outings with their child.
To find out more see the Oxford School Improvement Report: ‘Parental Engagement, how to make a real difference‘
Both the aforementioned report and a recent report from the Education Endowment Foundation ‘What works in Closing the gap’ point to the need for schools to focus closely on parental engagement as part of meeting the ongoing challenge of raising attainment for disadvantaged pupils. Within this focus, it is strongly indicated that schools need to adopt a highly personalised approach, which aims to understand home context and attitudes on a pupil by pupil basis, recognising that the factors which affect family engagement in a child’s learning are often very diverse. As Marc Rowland has observed, one of the key features of excellent leaders in education settings is that they understand their communities to the point that they know what it is like to live their lives. He quotes the words of Harper Lee in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’:
‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.’
This principle is borne out by the main findings from and implications of a research report from the National College into the importance of Leadership for Parental Engagement:
- Developing a clear vision for parental engagement underpinned by a core belief that parents and children matter creates a powerful motive for gaining the commitment of staff, parents and the community
- The most powerful examples of effective parental engagement work indicate that distributing the leadership and enabling others to develop leadership skills make a real difference
The evidence is clear; one major barrier to raising achievement for some of our most disadvantaged pupils may be the challenge of engaging effectively with their parents and carers, many of whom may not find it easy to respond to the school’s traditional ‘menu’ of opportunities to become involved and may themselves lack the aspiration and ‘growth mindset’ that the school strives to develop in their children. However, breaking such intergenerational cycles of low aspiration and disenfranchisement with education is likely to be a key next step in closing attainment gaps.
For many schools, this may imply the need to develop a more tailored ‘menu’ of opportunities for parents and carers to get involved, including:
- A universal offer to all parents (including the traditional ‘parents evenings’, home school reading scheme/homework etc.’)
- A targeted offer for some parents who may experience barriers to engaging with the universal offer and need additional support to engagement (for example, because they themselves have negative memories of school and engagement with teachers; lack of personal literacy and/or numeracy skills; language and/or cultural barriers to attending events)
- A bespoke offer which provides a substitute to parental involvement through volunteers, Teaching Assistants etc. for those children whose parents or carers are currently unable to engage with school or home learning opportunities (for example, because of mental or physical health issues, housing problems or lack of literacy and/or numeracy skills).
For practical ideas see:
Di Hatchett’s career in primary education spans over 40 years, including twelve years as a head teacher, service as Senior Director with the National Strategies, and Director of the Every Child a Chance Trust. Di’s expertise is the development of high-quality approaches to intervention for children who struggle with the development of core skills in literacy and/or mathematics.