Parents can play a meaningful role as partners in their children’s education

 

Some would call Breid Greene a glutton for punishment – she is not on just one but two primary school parent councils.

She has a 13-year-old boy in sixth class at St Peter and Paul’s Primary School in Clonmel, Co Tipperary and a 10-year-old girl in fourth class at the nearby Scoil Mhuire na n-Aingeal, and she helps out with the parent associations of both.

“I enjoy it and I like committee work as well,” she says. “I am not just doing it because I am a parent – I think it is a good thing to be involved in anyway.”

Parental involvement in schools works at many different levels, from signing your child’s homework journal to giving your views on anti-bullying policies, from holding the finishing tape at sports day to helping out in the library.

Research shows that when parents work closely with schools, children perform better irrespective of social background, size of family or even the level of parental education.

The Education Act of 1998 enshrined parental involvement and gave the National Parents Council (NPC) statutory recognition for its input into national policy.

However, when parents’ working day starts before the school gate opens and long after it closes, it is difficult for many to look over homework, never mind go along for evening meetings. Inevitably, it is the same people, such as Greene, who step forward and stay involved.

The challenge for schools and parents’ councils alike is to extend the reach to all parents, no matter what their circumstances. The other big issue is to dispel the perception, on both sides, that parental involvement is mainly about fundraising.

A survey last year by the NPC found that while parents ranked fundraising as one of the less important ways in which they could be involved in their children’s education, the majority involved in parents’ associations listed this as their main activity.

While the Department of Education and Skills recognises parents as “partners in education”, parent groups are more likely to be seen as a resource for raising money rather than encouraging other parents to become more involved in the education of their children.

Legislation
Legislation makes provision for structures by which parents can engage in education, says NPC chief executive Áine Lynch, but “it doesn’t really frame the values that should underpin that relationship”. In most schools, these structures have effectively become fundraising committees.

“By no stretch of the imagination is fundraising a school’s ‘parental involvement’,” she stresses. The sense of a “good” parents’ association now is one that raises a lot of money, but that shouldn’t be what a parents’ association is about.

The “mismatch” between what educators know and think is important about parental involvement and what is actually done on the ground will be highlighted by Dr Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University in the US at the NPC and European Parents’ Association Conference in Dublin this weekend.

The “hang-up” schools have in implementing what research is telling them will benefit children is the “how to”, she tells The Irish Times, in advance of her first visit to Ireland. Many schools are still hesitant, sceptical or fearful that it will be too much work.

As director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), Epstein has been to the forefront of devising realistic ways for busy teachers and busy parents to collaborate more for the sake of the children.

Strategies need to be realistic and family friendly. “You’re not trying to arrange a way that parents can argue more with their children,” she remarks.

Take something like reading, where parents should know they are part of the solution in getting all children to do their very best, she says.

Schools can “shine a spotlight on what families and children can do together to enjoy reading, not to make it a burdensome thing”. The approach should be: “We are going to do it in a way that doesn’t take more than 20 minutes a night, or it can be done at the weekend, or it can be done here at school and we’ll give everybody dinner.”

Designing homework
With a subject such as maths, her network helps teachers to design homework that requires the student to show and share something interesting they’re learning in class, in the way that the teacher taught it.

Parents should not feel they’re supposed to know how to teach maths, Epstein says. “They’re supposed to know how to encourage the student to learn maths, or how to change a negative attitude to a positive attitude about maths.”

The motivational effect for a child is going to be very different if, on the one hand, a parent says “isn’t that interesting, that’s really hard stuff you’re learning” or on the other hand says “uh oh, you have maths homework, I hated maths when I was at school”, she points out.

Epstein promotes a six-part framework (see panel) for successful partnerships in education.

“This helps to halt the finger-pointing that sometimes occurs if educators don’t see the parents at the school building – they believe they are not involved.”

Whereas they might be involved at home, she points out, everybody has different family situations, be it couples both working, separated parents or a parent working two jobs.

“We have to be able to enable parents to get involved in different ways and different places so that they can feel they know what is happening to their children.

“Underlying everything is equity, because some parents have always been involved but many, many parents, as children go up through the grades, become confused and alienated.”

Her advice to parents with children at school is:
Be open to participation: Most schools, even if they are not particularly well-organised, do something to involve parents.
Talk regularly and positively to your child about school: Aim to create a conversation about learning rather than just checking up. For instance, instead of just saying “how was school today?”, ask them to tell you the most interesting thing they learnt in maths or to show you the section of a book they found most exciting.
Team approach: If you are engaged with the school, she recommends advocating the “team approach”, where parents, teachers and community representatives work together.

Having teachers involved does not take away from the parent group but gives it a broader base.

“It has the chance of reaching more families,” she adds, “and if we reach more families, we will ultimately help more children.”

There has been an “enormous shift” in attitudes and practice around parental involvement in schools here since the 1980s, says the chief inspector with the Department of Education and Skills, Harold Hislop. It is the exception rather than the rule that parents are not involved these days, he suggests – at least at some level. “Our experience is that it varies from school to school; some schools are very good at it.”

Welcoming of parents
When primary school parents are surveyed as part of whole-school evaluations, for the past three years 95 per cent of parents have either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that their child’s school is welcoming of parents.

“That is incredibly high,” comments Hislop, who will also address next Saturday’s conference.

On the other hand, when it comes to the statement, “parents are invited to contribute their views about school policy”, only 67 per cent agree or strongly agree, and a fifth of them “don’t know”.

This shows the success of schools in being welcoming and supportive of parents and their individual children, but that they are less successful in involving parents in policy development, although, he says, this is not always the schools’ fault.

Greene agrees that the challenge for both schools and parents’ councils is to raise the level of engagement of all parents.

“Parents are working and it is very difficult to reach them,” she says.

When schools are showcasing what the children are doing, be it music or drama or whatever, parents love getting in and seeing what’s happening. And the attendance at teacher-parent meetings is also very good.

“There is a will there but I think sometimes the level of engagement going a step further is difficult,” says Greene, who does not feel that either of the parents’ associations she is involved with comes under undue pressure in terms of fundraising.

There is a “dialogue” around fundraising in both schools every year but “we’re involved in other things”, she says.

On policy side, both schools consult with the parents’ council, she says. In one the principal attends the first half of their meetings, in the other the principal meets association representatives in between meetings.

In the boys’ school the council organises events, such as the graduation night and sports day, and decorates the school at Christmas, while in the girls’ school, the council helps out in other ways.

“We’re organising things that children will get enjoyment from,” she adds, “that will make their school life more enjoyable and more interesting.”


The NPC and European Parents Association Conference, which takes place this Saturday, June 15th, at the National College of Ireland in Dublin, is open to all interested in school education but you must register in advance by emailling your name and a contact number to info@npc.ie or telephone 01 887 4034. See npc.ie for more details.


swayman@irishtimes.com

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