Parents' Views on Improving Parental Involvement in Children's Education
CHAPTER FOUR: FORMS AND PATTERNS OF PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT
This chapter identifies the different types of parental involvement and the factors that motivate parents to become involved in different ways. It then goes on to discuss patterns of parental involvement at different stages in their children's education.
4.1 Types of parental involvement
There are many different ways in which parents are involved in the education of their children ranging from active participation in formal bodies such as the School Board and the PTA, to less formal involvement in school events, to coming along to watch a school concert or sport event, to activities that parents conduct in the home in support of learning. Distinctions can be made between informal, semi-formal and formal involvement, active and less active, and home based and school based involvement. 7 There are logical reasons as to why parents are or are not involved in certain types of activity. These are affected both by personal or local circumstances impacting on a family, and certain barriers to involvement that parents perceive. The details of factors affecting involvement are discussed in chapter seven.
The following table summarises these different types of involvement. It should be noted that the table is offered as a rough illustration of the range of types of parental involvement. The shaded area indicates the types of active commitment that most parents do not partake in. These are the types of active participation that are the domain of the silent minority.
Table 4.1 Examples of parental involvement
Formal and Active
Formal and Active
Reading PTA / School Board communication and keeping track of their activities and discussions
Informal and Active
Helping out in playground, canteen
Helping at extra curricular activities
Helping on school trips
Informal and Active
Helping with homework
Encouraging children to learn
Encouraging children to talk about their day
Providing additional learning resources
Watching children playing sport
Listening to children talk about their day
4.2 Parental involvement at home (less active and active)
The majority of parents participating in the research play a range of supporting roles in their children's education at home and as noted in the previous chapter, consider that these in themselves constitute an important form of involvement.
Parents are also aware of the importance of providing learning support and educational input at home. However, there is some surprise at the degree of impact that parental input in the home can have on subsequent levels of attainment. This is indicated by expressions of surprise in response to statistical facts. For example, many respondents are surprised to learn that, "Doing homework through their years at school has roughly the same benefit as an extra year's schooling." This indicates that the significance of the home environment and parental input may not be accurately understood by many parents.
Parents support children's learning at home in different ways, and to varying degrees. The types of activities identified include:
- Helping with homework and school projects
- Providing learning resources and encouraging children to use them:
- Providing computer equipment
- Educational games
- Other resources such as paints, kite making, skeletons etc.
- Other learning activities:
- Educational excursions
- Children help with cooking.
- Encouraging children to learn:
- Communicating with children and discussing problems
- Pointing out the benefits of learning.
- Employing tutors.
However, there is variation in the level of input by parents at home and there is some evidence to suggest that socio-economic grouping is a key factor affecting this. Some parents from lower socio-economic groups are less aware about the importance of education in the home to help their children learn. Many parents also appear to face greater barriers in supporting learning at home for a number of reasons such as a lack of time as they are working to support the family financially. Additionally, parents facing severe poverty may not be able to afford to purchase additional learning resources to help their children.
Help with homework
Most parents are involved at home in actively supervising homework at primary school level, but less so as their children progress to secondary school. At primary school level, all the parents we spoke to are aware that they have responsibilities to ensure children complete their homework each night and to provide help and support where required. School projects too are regarded as an area where parental input is required. Thus parents will sit with children when younger and listen to their reading or watch them complete tasks. Parents will also provide ideas in support of successfully completing homework or projects.
The parents of secondary school aged pupils are less involved in homework supervision in comparison, and involvement decreases progressively as their children get older. As children progress on to and through secondary education, parents feel less equipped to help them, as school work becomes more challenging, especially in subject areas with which they are not familiar. Some parents also point out that they are reluctant to get involved as teaching styles have changed since their day and it can lead to even greater confusion:
"Then, it'll end in an argument.
'That's not how you do that.'
'Well maths has changed since I was at school.'
You can't win." Parent (silent majority, S2-S4, ABC1, Dumfries)
While the feeling of not knowing how to help is widespread amongst parents of those with children at secondary school, it can also apply to younger children, where parents may feel unsure of what systems are being used to teach even basic skills such as reading or spelling. An example given was whether the phonetic alphabet is used when teaching sounds, reading and spelling.
Discussion revealed different views on the role of homework. For a majority of parents, homework supervision is regarded as one way of gaining a fuller understanding of what a child is doing at school. A less common view was that homework interfered with the quality time that parents had with their children and a few expressed a view that children should be able to complete their learning during the school day. In part, the way that homework is given out to children helps create an uncertainty about its importance. Where schools have clear homework policies or mechanisms for informing parents about homework requirements, this can be helpful.
In some cases, parents report having very little awareness of the level and frequency of homework their children ought to be doing. Their children do not keep them well informed about homework demands, even if parents ask them regularly about them.
A number of parents feel that their children are sufficiently independent to be responsible for fulfilling the demands of the school and do not require parental monitoring. This is especially the case when children reach secondary school, rather than at primary school. In fact, they believe that leaving their children to organise their homework themselves is a key part of maturing and as such they should not 'interfere'. These parents assume that their children are meeting the requirements and expect that the school would contact them if the requirements were not being met.
However, some parents are concerned because they do not know what their children are supposed to be doing. Some parents point out that their children do not spend much time doing homework. Parents with children at different schools also note that there are marked differences in the amount, level and volume of homework set by different schools. Even those with children of different ages at the same school comment on the different attitudes of teachers in setting homework as their children progress through the school. Thus, in primary 3 one child may regularly get homework, but when the younger child reaches primary 3, the situation will be different.
In some schools, children have the opportunity to complete homework during school hours, making it harder for parents to know when their children need to spend additional time at home on homework. Parents would like to know exactly what is demanded of their children on a weekly basis, and whether or not their children are fulfilling such demands.
At present, the parents of children in some secondary schools do not appear to have many effective ways of tracking homework. The main medium of communication is the homework diary. However, as discussed in greater detail in chapter five, these do not always work effectively. There is clearly a need for an improvement in this area, and some suggestions are offered in chapter eight.
Providing learning resources
Most parents encourage learning in the home and purchase resources to help their children. Books are commonly bought for children from a young age and parents integrate reading opportunities into the daily routine, starting with bedtime stories when their children are young, to continuing to encourage reading at later stages.
Many parents also provide educational games and encourage their children to play them on a regular basis for example Boggle, Scrabble or Monopoly. In some households, parents supply their children with additional learning materials such as science kits, skeleton building, clay modelling, paints and kite making equipment and encourage their children to use them.
Computers and associated technological resources such as digital cameras, printers, and so on, are also regarded as valuable learning resources and provided by parents who are able to afford them. Many households are also online, enabling their children to have access to internet resources, which is often useful in support of school projects or certain homework assignments. However, some parents draw attention to the fact that some families cannot afford to buy technological equipment, and that setting homework that depends on the use of the internet discriminates against those families who do not have such resources.
They also draw attention to educational programmes on TV that they feel would be beneficial for their children to see.
Other learning activities
Some parents also encourage children to participate in a range of activities at home to foster learning including for example, cooking and baking, to help with reading, weighing and measuring, to help with numbers. Parents also integrate educational activities into day to day life for example pointing out features in the landscape in support of geography or the reading out of words on signage in public spaces to help reading, or naming items that they come across outside the home that their children might not have seen before.
Parents also take their children on educational excursions to visit museums, libraries, often in support of school projects.
There are also a number of ways that parents encourage their children to learn, one of the most important ways is by keeping the lines of communication open enabling children to ask questions or tell their parents if they are struggling with some aspect of learning. Many parents also seek to motivate their children as often as possible by emphasising the benefits of learning and drawing attention to the need for qualifications for a successful future.
In a few households, parents are keen to provide their children with private tutoring to support their learning. This is most commonly provided for children who are preparing for exams, and it is usually targeted at subject areas where a child is performing to a standard less than expected. Tutoring is often provided to ensure higher grades amongst pupils whose teachers might not have considered tutoring necessary but whose parents want to ensure their children achieve the highest possible grades. A few parents in one area in Aberdeen perceived tutoring, which can only be afforded by the wealthiest parents in up-market areas, to be partly responsible for good exam results at the local schools.
Learning additional skills
Some parents emphasise the importance of teaching additional things at home that children may not learn at school including 'social' and 'personal survival' skills. Those from specific types of backgrounds such as minority ethnic or Gypsy/Traveller communities may also wish their children to learn culture specific values and skills. For example, Indian parents were reported to consider it important for girls to learn to cook and keep house, whilst Indian boys go out with their father to learn about the family business. Similarly, Gypsy/Traveller children are encouraged to acquire additional practical skills in keeping with a travelling lifestyle.
4.3 Parental involvement outside the home
Parental involvement also includes a range of activities that parents attend outside the home. Firstly, there are a number of activities that are less active in the way they engage parents. These include things like:
- Watching children take part in sport
- Attending school concerts or shows
- Attending social events held at the school.
Such activities are recognised by many parents to be an important opportunity to:
- Interact with teachers on a less formal basis
- Meet other parents
- Witness their children interacting with friends
- Witness their children interacting with teachers in a less formal setting.
Parents also recognise these as important ways of supporting and encouraging their children in a relatively unobtrusive fashion.
Such events play an important part in fostering a strong sense of community. They are also a less intimidating way of encouraging parents into the school. By witnessing the school environment in which their children function every day, parents feel less remote from the school and its activities.
It should be noted here, that these types of activities are particularly important to families who are newcomers to an area, a status often characterising minority ethnic, asylum seekers, refugees and some Gypsy/Traveller parents. These people may have few contacts with wider society, suffer significant social exclusion, and consequently the school may be one of the main means of access to the outside world. Where the school fails to offer an adequate route into the local community, the social exclusion and isolation faced by these families is very difficult to overcome. It should be borne in mind when organising these types of activities that they have this key role and should be made as accessible as possible to all. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that what is accessible to one will not suit another and so various options may be needed.
4.4 Informal and Formal activities
There are a number of activities that involve more active participation outside the home ranging from informal to formal activities.
There are many activities that are relatively informal. These cover activities such as helping at fundraising events like jumble sales and coffee mornings. They also include activities that involve direct contact with school pupils such as helping at school events, with extra curricular activities, on sports day and on school trips.
In some schools, parents also have the opportunity to help on a regular basis in the day to day operation of the school. Again, this covers activities involving direct contact with school pupils such as assisting in the classroom, doing playground duty or helping children with their food in the school canteen.
Attending parents' nights and other teachers meetings are semi-formal occasions. While ostensibly these are an opportunity for an informal discussion about their child, often they turn out to be highly formal meetings. While recognised as a chance for parents to meet teachers face to face, the subject matter and form of interaction is prescribed. The degree of information that is obtained on these occasions can be limited due to time restrictions and as such the role of teachers in these meetings is often described by parents as being a formulaic response of 'everything's fine'.
Formal activities refer to membership of organised bodies such as the PTA, the School Board and other committees and sub groups. The majority of parents are not involved in these bodies for a number of reasons that are discussed in chapter seven. Because of this, there is a strong sense that parents lack opportunities to give voice to their opinions, and there are no alternative representative bodies.
4.5 Patterns of involvement
Patterns of involvement are influenced by a number of different factors including the age of children and their stage in the education system, the attitudes of parents, and the perceived benefits of involvement.
Age and stage of children
The age and stage of schooling of their children affects patterns of parental involvement. Parents tend to be more involved in school activities when their children are younger (pre- school and primary) and this drops off significantly when the child moves to secondary school.
"At primary school I could have been doing something every day. Not at the Academy." (silent majority, S5 - post-school, ABC1, Aberdeen)
This reflects the changing needs of children as they progress through school, but is also attributed to the different nature and perceived ethos of primary and secondary schools. Parents understandably wish to keep a close eye on their children's activities when they are young. They are keen to get to know the other parents, and other children with whom their children are mixing, in order to be assured that their child can safely visit other children's houses. As children get older they become more independent and parents have less control over their activities.
Thus parents of primary aged children are more able to access opportunities for getting involved with school life through a mix of means aided by their more frequent attendance at the school. Parents perceive primary schools and pre-schools to be more receptive and used to parents being present.
At secondary school, children often 'ban' their parents from being present. Parents told us that their children will make them drop them within walking distance from the school, rather than allowing them to deliver them to the school gate. The secondary school is perceived to welcome parental involvement less. Parents said that they have fewer opportunities to offer assistance with sports coaching and classroom duty compared with primary school. The presumption is, amongst parents, that the larger school has sufficient resources to be able to cover these roles. Lack of regular contact with the school prevents parents from gaining an understanding from the school or other parents of how parents can be involved. Thus some parents spoke about being forced to give up activities that they had offered when their child was at primary school, while others continue a link with a primary school because they enjoy certain activities, when they no longer have children attending the school.
Attitude of parents
Where parents are involved to some extent, they are more likely to be involved in activities that place the least burden on them, thus less active forms of involvement that do not demand a great deal of time will have more takers than activities that require active input, effort and time. Thus a greater number of parents are to be found attending meetings or helping out in fundraising activities for the school. Some parents express a willingness to help out on the odd school trip, but note that the increasing need for disclosure checks is a hurdle that some may perceive too bothersome to overcome. Comparatively fewer would be willing to commit themselves to more time consuming, high profile and formal activities such as membership of the School Board or PTA.
To benefit their own child
One of the main factors motivating parents to partake in activities at school is to enable them to keep track of how their child is coping, to get a closer impression of the atmosphere of the school their children attend and to get wind of issues that may be facing the school or their child.
"The reason we got involved with the PTA was to know about things in advance so that we can influence them…we have better access to the school. I can go up… I can talk to the Head Teacher." (silent majority, P4-7, C1C2, Dumfries)
"The more you know what is happening in the daily routine and things going on at the school, the more you are able to talk to your children about them and see how they feel about everything." (non silent minority, P1-3, ABC1, Edinburgh)
Parents of pre-and primary school aged children especially are also badgered to participate in school events by their children who can be very persuasive. Children often prepare for such events well in advance, for example, school concerts, sporting events or fundraising events such as fetes or jumble sales and their enthusiasm and excitement will lead them to speak about it regularly at home and implore their parents to participate.
"My son and daughter insist that I to go to the events at the school. My daughter will say to me, 'Can't you be the Mum who comes and does the books?" (non silent minority, P1-3, ABC1, Edinburgh)
Even some parents of older children are aware that their children like them to be present to support them at sporting events or school concerts or shows.
"It's always good to go to watch them play sport, … even if they are big… you just watch your child, if he is playing basketball and if he scores where does he look? He looks at where the family is. You know, it gives them the confidence to go further." (Minority ethnic, primary, Aberdeen)
Thus, generating enthusiasm amongst children and encouraging them to get their parents along is an additional means of getting parents to attend school events especially amongst children of certain age groups.
In addition to the factors described above, involvement is also affected by different obstacles, hindrances and barriers, the details of which are discussed in chapter seven.
This chapter has discussed the range of different types of parental involvement which have been grouped according to whether they are informal or formal, active or less active, at home or at school or some combination of each. Most parents are involved in some way by what they do at home but many are unaware of the significance of home input. The greater the degree of commitment and time required in a given activity, the less likely are the majority of parents to get involved.
Key findings of this section are:
- Only a small proportion of parents get involved in active, formal activities which require significant input.
- Lack of time is highlighted as a reason for many parents not being more involved.
- Some parents are also put off by Disclosure Scotland checks, partly due to a lack of understanding of what these actually involve.
- Parents who are actively involved in school activities, do so primarily out of concern to do the best for their own child. Their main motivation is to keep track of what their own child is doing and get a more informed impression of the school and prior insights into issues that may affect their child.
This is a key message that can be taken forward by SEED in any marketing campaign to appeal to parents.