Focus on Féilte: Can teachers and parents get along?

The benefits of a good home-school relationship – and how to manage it – will be discussed at this year’s Féilte education festival

‘If communication with teachers and students is good, there’s less likely to be conflict with parents.’ Photograph: Getty Images

How can you help your children to reach their full potential in school? Dozens of studies make it clear what matters most in a child’s education is not whether they go to a private school or even where they live. It has nothing to do with the gender or sexuality of their parents or guardians. No, what matters most is the education level of the parents and how much those parents are engaged in their child’s education.

Some parents get heavily involved in their children’s education, occasionally too heavily. One teacher (not interviewed in this article) told me that a parent was so domineering on a fourth-class outing, they were quietly blacklisted from future tours.

On the other hand, some parents, perhaps put off by their own bad experience of school, have little or no engagement. So, when is a parent overstepping the mark, and when do they need to step up to it?

This topic will be debated on Saturday, October 3rd at the third annual Féilte Festival of Education in Learning and Teaching Excellence, with RTÉ broadcaster Keelin Shanley as chairwoman. The day-long event has grown since its inception; this year it moves to the RDS in Dublin. It will bring together more than 1,200 teachers and members of the public.


Research by Charles Desforges of the University of Exeter into the impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement shows that when parents get involved in their children's education, the children have better learning outcomes.

Sheila Nunan, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, says partnership between parents and teachers is essential to the education and wellbeing of children.

“Partnership can be built through formal channels, such as parent-teacher meetings, meetings by request and involvement in sporting or artistic activities; and informal channels such as irregular, non-routine but nonetheless important communications on matters of concern to either parents or teachers,” Nunan says.

We spoke to a school principal and some of those participating in the debate.

‘Communication should continue through the year’

Áine Lynch is chief executive of the National Parents Council Primary and will be on the panel debate. "The most important way for a parent to be involved is with their child's learning at home," she says.

“Parents and teachers mostly get on well, but sometimes communication breaks down, especially if the expectations of the parents, teachers and students don’t align. This is where the home-school relationship is key,” says Lynch. “The school can’t have an understanding of expectations – and vice-versa – without communication. In some schools, there’s a meeting at the beginning of the year where all the parents are brought in and told what to expect. This is a good idea, but the communication should continue through the year.”

Lynch says this may require us to look at how we structure our schools. Currently, the NPC has a project with the Irish Primary Principals’ Network called Partnership Schools, looking at how children, parents, management, teachers and the local community can work together to improve academic outcomes for children.

We also need to talk about homework, says Lynch, to make sure parents can be involved. Tasks such as setting the table and counting the number of forks and knives, for instance, or reading, would show parents what is being done at school and would involve them more.

‘We don’t always do honest conversations’

Tomás Ó Ruairc is director of the Teaching Council and a parent. He also recognises that teachers and parents can sometimes get on one another's nerves"Everybody agrees there should be parental involvement in their child's education, but the question is what we understand by this," he says. "Is it attending a parent-teacher meeting once a year, or should it be more?"

Some parents, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, may not have the best memories of school. This can, to the detriment of children, create barriers between teachers and parents. A number of schools have a dedicated space or room for parents where they can come and have a coffee and talk to teachers.

Ó Ruairc has a daughter in primary school. When she had anxiety issues about tests, he spoke to the teacher. “I said that we know from our home life that this is an issue, and I asked how we could work together on it. We had a follow-up meeting a few weeks later, and my daughter has come on in leaps and bounds. The teacher had a moment of reflective practice and made some changes, while at home we worked on decreasing the child’s anxiety through mindfulness. We were all working in the best interests of the child.”

The follow-up is equally important, says Ó Ruairc. “Too often there is just one big meeting, and the teacher doesn’t know if their action has had any impact at all. The teacher is not being intrusive, but they want to know, as professionals, whether there’s been any progress.”

With special needs, there can be a tendency for schools and teachers to look to official bodies, such as the Department of Education or the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, for guidance. This is too often at the expense of teachers and parents having honest conversations with one another, says Ó Ruairc. "Ireland is a great nation for folklore and storytelling, but we don't always do honest conversations because of a fear of conflict."

‘Children should have a real voice’

We're having the wrong debate, says Dr Paul Gilligan, chief executive of St Patrick's Mental Health Services.

“We really need to focus on improving how young people participate in education and the school system, as opposed to how involved the parents are. I’m not convinced the structure and culture of our education system has developed to enable real and meaningful participation.”

Gilligan, who has a background in children’s rights and mental health, points to an ESRI study on wellbeing that says children should have a real voice in school decision-making. If their voices are heard, their parents don’t have to get involved and the potential for conflict is reduced.

School councils are one way of ensuring this, but many school councils have proven ineffective and tokenistic.

“There can be age-appropriate participation from a young age, which ensures that young voices are heard,” he says. “In one preschool I worked with, the children were asked to take pictures of the things they liked in creche and the things they didn’t like. There’s no reason why a 13- or 14-year-old shouldn’t be involved in the decision-making process as one of the voices at the table. They’re not unreasonable and they have worthwhile things to say.”

Scandinavian countries – which tend to have good educational outcomes – are held up as a model of student involvement. But in some developing countries where education is not taken as a given and the children attending school are there because they want to be, the power dynamic is different: those children tend to be given space to get involved in shaping the governance and direction of the school.

The views of teachers

Avril Switzer is a second-level teacher at St Kevin's College in Crumlin, Dublin, with more than 20 years' experience. She is the home-school liaison teacher and will be speaking at the debate.

“Teachers recognise and respect that parents are the primary educators of their children. At second level, there’s an awareness that young people have a new level of independence and there may be less parental contact with the school. But we keep the lines of communication open and encourage parental involvement. Communication is key.”

Carmel Hume, who is not part of the Féilte discussion, is principal of Presentation Primary Terenure, an all-girls school in Dublin. "We have a very supportive parent body," she says. "Because of cuts we, like a lot of schools, have had to involve parents more. Sometimes parents come in to help, especially with the junior classes, where there's a heavy emphasis on group activities. There's a few dads, but it is predominantly mums. We need those volunteers – and getting them can be difficult with both parents at work – but it also helps the parents see what goes on in the school. Teachers are delighted with the help."

The children in her school are given an active role in decision-making, with each class drawing up a contract of behaviour.

“There are always going to be occasional issues, but if communication with teachers and students is good, there’s less likely to be conflict with parents,” she says.

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Tickets for Féilte have been in demand and the 1,200 free tickets are gone, but the event will be livestreamed on

Among the highlights will be keynote addresses by Mark Pollock, the first blind man to reach the South Pole; and Maureen Gaffney, the well-known professor of psychology.

There will be a panel discussion, chaired by broadcaster Keelin Shanley, on whether there is too much hype around technology in education or if it is sometimes adopted without sufficient thought as to how it will actually enhance teaching and learning. This is particularly relevant after the recent controversial OECD report that said Ireland’s poor provision of computers in schools might actually be a good thing, given that digital access without proper controls and supervision can lead to information overload and students plagiarising work.

Another discussion will consider how we can fully integrate mindfulness and wellbeing into teaching and learning.

Féilte includes showcases and workshops, spanning projects across the education sector, including how to use philosophy to encourage students to become independent and to think critically; how to create an inclusive classroom by preventing homophobic and transphobic bullying; how to promote inquiry in science; and how to bring creative arts into the classroom.


Parents and teachers both need to know how to work in partnership in order to contribute to children’s learning. Here are some guiding principles:

  • Be mindful at all times that the child is the centre of all our considerations.
  • Build and maintain respectful relationships: these are at the heart of effective partnership.
  • Use empathy: put yourself in the shoes of the other person to enable understanding.
  • Ensure that relevant, meaningful information is shared.
  • Communicate in an honest and genuine manner.
  • Work with care and be sensitive to the various social contexts.

Sheila Nunan, INTO general secretary