Parents get stuck in
Parental involvement in children’s education is not about ‘helping’ them create amazing art projects, but more about your attitude to their education, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
FEW THINGS make me feel more inadequate as a parent than when one of the children arrives home from school with an arts and crafts project for homework.
More than 30 years on, I still carry the mental scar of my art teacher’s verdict in an end-of-term school report: “Talent is limited.” It is no surprise, then, that as an adult I have never been a dab hand at transforming cereal boxes and yogurt cartons into 21st-century robots, with the artful use of tinfoil and glitter glue.
So I just know my child’s efforts will fall far short of his peers who will have been at least guided, if not physically helped, by an inspiringly creative parent.
“Parental involvement” is consistently identified in research as being the key factor in determining how well children do in education – over and above all other factors, including economic status.
But what exactly does that mean? Is it sitting down to do the homework with them, pestering the teacher for regular updates on progress or volunteering for the parents’ association (PA)?
The good news for those of us who are artistically or academically challenged is that what really matters is parenting, and making clear that you value education.
The Cambridge Primary Review, the most comprehensive inquiry into primary education in England in 40 years, found that good parenting at home has more impact on your child’s achievements, adjustment and attainment in education than in-school parental involvement.
This research, says the chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, Anne Looney, is unequivocal right up to the end of second-level education.
“If you really want to support your children doing well at school, the first thing you need to do is to be a really cracking parent at home.” (The second key factor, incidentally, is the quality of the teachers.)
Parents sometimes feel frantic pressure that they must be involved and connected with the school because it will help their child do well – “it will, but that is only secondary to putting your energies in at home”.
The quality of the home-school link is probably not one of the great strengths of our education system, she acknowledges, “but we are getting better at it”.
“There is an expectation, often on both sides, that the best thing a parent can do is ‘buns and basketball’, which is really important in an under-funded and under-supported system. But the thing that the school and the home have in common is the child,” she points out.
Finding good and useful ways to share information about the child’s learning and wellbeing is “more important than buns and basketball”.
E-mail and text messaging have made communication between school and home so much easier and it has the added bonus of cutting out the child.
The flow of information is no longer dependent on children remembering to hand over notes or on parents taking the initiative to rummage in their bags for any official-looking bits of paper.
Since the Education Act of 1988 recognised parents as partners in education, their involvement through boards of management and PAs has taken off, says the chief executive of the National Parents Council Primary (NPC), Áine Lynch.
But when you look at the learning side, that generally is not happening, she suggests. “We feel the focus has to shift. The support has to be there for parents in how they engage.
“On a practical level for parents, one of the things we would be very keen to stress is that, as a parent, you don’t need to be able to read or write to be involved in your children’s education – involvement covers all abilities.”
Some schools put on maths classes for parents, so they can help their children with, say, long division. While the NPC is not against that, she explains, parental involvement is not about being teachers but supporting a child to learn.
For the first time this year, the NPC is addressing peer support for parents in its PA training. This might mean putting on a workshop, she says, in how to make home a learning environment – asking how the child’s day went, allocating quiet time and space for homework, having plenty of reading material in the home.
“Even if you have got an MA or doctorate, these are the things that matter,” she adds. “It is not about sitting and being able to do your child’s homework for them, and it is not about making sure your child goes in with the best science project because you have done half of it.”
Joan Christie, a teacher and mother of two primary school children, says she found constant references to the need for “parental involvement” a bit derogatory towards parents. “There is a need for them to be more ‘included’, they are already hugely ‘involved’.”
She and a psychologist, Caroline Dench, have devised a programme to bolster the school-home link in learning, which is being piloted in schools in Co Wexford, called Learning in Everyday Activities (LiEA).
It takes learning objectives from the primary school curriculum, translates them into plain English and shows how they can be taught through routine domestic chores, such as laying the table, hanging out washing, going shopping.
Thinking of parental involvement in education conjures up the iconic image of the parent sitting at the table with the child, reading, writing, figuring out maths, they point out. “There is massive educational value in such activities. However, we want parents to see equal value in the learning that is inherent in our everyday activities.”
For example, setting the table with knives and forks is an exercise in matching sets from the maths curriculum. Watering the flowers in the garden and putting bread on the bird table are examples of “environmental awareness and care” covered in the science curriculum.
LiEA is about completing the home-school learning circle and it comes with illustrated cards highlighting the learning potential in a range of everyday activities.
Christie and Dench run workshops for teachers, showing how they can communicate to parents what is going to be covered in the classroom and how this can be reinforced through conversation and tasks at home.
“This has to be done in such a way there is no pressure on parents,” Christie stresses. “It is something that they would be doing anyway.”
Just like their first-year children, parents new to secondary school can find the transition a confusing, stressful and isolating experience.
They miss the informal support network of fellow parents at the school gate. And there is an array of teachers to get to know, instead of just one.
The initial first-year parents’ night is “really, really important”, says the public relations officer of the National Parents’ Council Post-Primary (NPCpp), Jackie O’Callaghan. “
You have gone to the open day, you have had the spiel from the principal and some people think, ‘That is only to get us in’. It is up to you to go, when you’re in, and listen to what they have to say and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
Schools have lost much of their “them and us” attitude over the years, she says. “All schools have to have a PA – that doesn’t necessarily make it a good PA.”
Participation in PAs is “healthy enough” at local level, she reports, although it is difficult to get parents involved at national level. She believes people are “beat” from fundraising and this can put them off volunteering.
But, she adds, serving on the PA gives parents an insight and better understanding of the school, as well as providing an opportunity to shape its policies.
Parents continue to be highly influential in their children’s education at second level, although they might not realise that.
“You think the next generation is totally cool and not listening to their mammies,” says Looney, but a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute found that when it came to choosing Leaving Certificate subjects, parents, particularly mothers, were hugely influential – and this also applied to decisions about CAO forms.
Due to the emphasis on subjects at secondary school, parents can feel somewhat “disempowered”, she says. “Inevitably they approach the English teacher in their child’s school with memories of their own English teacher.”
She commends the innovative practice around parent-teacher meetings of having the student there too. “There is quite a lot to be said for that because rather than two adults having a conversation about a 16-year-old’s learning and then it being conveyed to the 16 year old – which, when you think about it, is an odd thing to do – if the 16 year old is there, it allows the teacher to talk to both of them. It is a three-way conversation.
“It also has the benefit,” she adds, “of the student seeing they are the one who is supposed to do all the work – not the parent and not the teacher!”
A new book about moving from primary to secondary school, Moving Up, by John Stevenson, a former principal, is available through some schools or the NPCpp. See npcpp.ie for details
DAVID FOLEY: ‘I AM THE INFORMAL VOICE OF THE SCHOOL’
Known as “Dave” to the pupils and their parents, rather than “Mr Foley”, David Foley is a teacher with a difference at St Philomena’s School in Bray, Co Wicklow.
As the home school community liaison (HSCL) teacher, his job is to foster the link between families and the school, where €8,000 was spent this summer refurbishing its parents’ room to make it bright and welcoming. The idea is not only to encourage parents into the school but also to get them involved in their child’s education.
Parents can use the room to have coffee and chat with him and other parents, or while away the hour between the pick-ups of infants and older children. It is also the venue for various free courses, ranging from flower-arranging and cookery to computer skills and back-to-work preparation, run in conjunction with Bray Partnership and Bray Adult Education.
“We find the first step is the hardest – once parents are in, they will put their hand up for everything,” says Foley, who also works at the nearby St Peter’s Boys’ National School.
Parent-child initiatives include “maths for fun” classes, during which parents come in to play games with the children and learn how to do the same at home, and a bedtime reading club for junior and senior infants, where parents come in once a week to pick a book.
Home visits are a large part of Foley’s work, but he stresses to parents that when he knocks on their door, it is simply for a cup of tea and a chat – how is the child getting on, how is the family, has a past pupil settled okay in secondary school?
“They know if I am calling out it is not necessarily bad news,” he explains. “If there is a problem, they would say it to me because I am the informal voice of the school.” He liaises daily with the principal and other teachers and has monthly meetings with the National Educational Welfare Board.
The HSCL service, which operates primarily in schools in the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools) programme, is such a good model, the National Parents Council would like to see every school have one.
But that is not going to happen, with the scheme being curtailed rather than expanded. There are 402 HSCL/rural posts, covering 545 primary and post-primary schools, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Skills, down from 544 serving 1,107 schools in 2006-2009.
STRENGTHENING THE HOME-SCHOOL LINK
Be positive about school to your child. Ask children about their day – show an interest.
Know school policy on issues such as uniform, discipline, eating and homework, and try to ensure your child is abiding by these.
Establish a routine for homework: a child coming home from primary school usually sits down for a snack but then should do homework before going out to play.
Encourage your teenager to form good, independent study habits, by providing a private, comfortable place to work, assisting in time management and dissuading any inclination towards procrastination.
Don’t do homework for them – if there is a problem let the teacher know. And encourage children not just to “do” homework, but to do it as well as they can, and praise the effort made.
Use homework notebooks, which parents are usually required to sign daily at primary level and weekly at secondary, to communicate observations or minor concerns.
Have plenty of reading material in the house and model reading for pleasure – show children it’s not something just for school.
Attend parents’ association events and, if you can, offer your services to the committee.
Get to know your child’s teacher or teachers – it makes communication easier.
If you want to raise something with a teacher, ask to schedule a time before or after school.
Look out for signs of bullying, but don’t overact initially and try to get details.