In recent years, an array of legislation and guidance has emerged under the present new Labour government to bring together a co-ordinated framework of services to address the care and educational needs of children. The government has expressed its intention, DfES (1997) and DfES (2003) to place schools at the heart of a new multidisciplinary approach to children’s services with improved communication and consultation between schools, together with other service providers, and parents, as one of its principle aims.
Many commentators such as Nind et al (2003); Williams (2004) and Berk (2004) have noted the importance of parents as the prime educators of their children and the issue of establishing successful partnerships between schools and parents has been addressed through a number of different perspectives. It seems that the strategies employed to overcome barriers and build constructive relationships must be situated within a school ethos of genuine inclusion which values parents’ views and contribution which, in turn, can only enhance children’s attitudes to learning. Effective Home-School collaborative education stimulates and imbues children with a positive culture of learning.
Brooker (2002) and Mayall (2002) have noted the ways in which children, and parents, are effectively socialised into the pedagogical ethos of their child’s school and suggest that parents’ conformity to this ethos has commonly underpinned many models of parental involvement. As Brooker (2002) argues, an “open door” policy which ostensibly invites parents in to see classroom practice and consult with staff does not necessarily constitute a climate conducive to genuine collaboration in the educative process.
The research presented by Brooker (2002), whilst focusing primarily upon early years learning cultures, has provided some useful insights into the ways schools conceptualise their relationships with families and, conversely, how parents experience schools. She found that, from early on children’s schooling, school staff attitudes towards parents were highly influenced by their own perceptions of the extent to which parents expressed their interest in, and became involved with their children’s education.
Brooker (2002) identifies a wide gulf between the beliefs and values of formal educators and what she calls the “mountain of invisible investment made by parents”. She cites the work of Vincent (1996), for example, highlighting the negative perceptions of parents by teachers and suggests that, essentially, teachers tend only to welcome the involvement of those parents who do not contest school policies and practices or undermine their authority.
In similar vein, Beveridge (2004) asserts that teachers’ attitudes can often be negative and stereotypical regarding parental motivation, competence and skills in the educative domain and furthermore, parents are often aware of this and are adversely affected. She suggests that parents experiences of schools and school staff will inevitably be enhanced when they “feel respected in their own right as parents, and equally importantly, when they perceive that their child is a positively valued member of the school” (Beveridge, 2004). Congruently the more involved parents are in what goes on in the classroom; the more likely they are to understand the teacher’s goals and practices.
Warren and Young (2002) identify five broad areas presenting barriers to forming home-school partnerships. Firstly the ever-changing fluid nature of family demographics impinges on the development of dynamic partnerships. Secondly an entrenched “school ethos” often creates barriers to effective “culture-change” and schools are too set in their ways to embrace parental involvement in affairs of curriculum, decision-making and administration. Thirdly, the financial burden of developing partnerships with parents is a strain some schools feel cannot be justified and resources need to be channelled into more pressing areas and some teachers are unable to relinquish any degree of control to parents in the classroom.
Fourthly, parents may lack the necessary skills to assist their children’s educational development. Finally, communication is a pivotal building block of home-school partnerships and critics often point to the unequal relationship between schools and families in this area; communication is one-way traffic from the school to the parent and there is not enough thought or dialogue given to the way parents can provide input to the school or children’s learning. The development of partnerships between home and schools with the mutual acknowledgement of the diverse but essential roles of the other is not an easily accomplished task but neither is it an impossible task.
School staff attitudes, and indeed school ethos, seem central to the quality of relationships that can be developed with parents (Beveridge, 2004). Research conducted by Bastiani (1992) and Coleman (1998) found that whilst parents commonly expressed their need for information about the progress, attainments and possible difficulties regarding their children’s schooling, they also wanted reassurance that school staff understood their child’s personal and social needs, as well as their academic needs. Beveridge (2004) extends this view and draws from her own research into parents’ views, suggesting that teachers need to acquire the skills to “elicit and respond to parents’ own in-depth knowledge, perspectives and insights” about their children’s needs. This implies that teachers should be equipped with a high level of sensitivity and interpersonal skill vis-à-vis the parental perspective so that they may provide honest, clear and accurate information about the learning and behaviour of individual children at school.
Hornby et al (1995) and Hornby (2000) reiterate this point and argue for an extension of teachers’ skills to incorporate the principles, drawn from the counselling arena, of active, non-judgemental listening and joint problem-solving techniques. Hornby (2000), for example, calls for “skilled assertiveness that allows teachers to be both direct and diplomatic in their interactions with parents, and to respond constructively to disagreements and criticisms when these occur”Hornby (2000) argues for a reciprocal, inclusive framework of home-school links within which every family has a place, not just those few whose own culture and practices are in line with those of the school. Parents’ knowledge of their children, together with the contribution they can make to teaching, is seen as strengths universal to all families.
Hornby (2000) and Nind et al (2003) argue it should also be recognised, however, that parents have different levels of need in terms of information and support. Beveridge (2004) agrees that parents’ accumulated, in-depth knowledge about their children can greatly enhance teachers’ understandings. In her discussion of parental involvement in the monitoring and assessment of children’s academic progress, Beveridge stresses that teachers need to include areas of comparative strength and ways in which these can be built upon, rather than a sole focus on difficulties and deficits. Whilst Beveridge is primarily discussing those children deemed as having ‘special educational needs’ here, this observation equally well applies to the assessment of all children’s progress. Although it seems clear that discrepancies inevitably will exist between the views of parents and teachers, a striving for mutual understanding and a greater accentuation on the ‘positives’ can do much to engender positive attitudes for both parents and children.
The current Head Teacher of Sacred Heart Catholic Primary School Mr Mullan stressed the purpose of the home-school partnership in terms of making an agreement between the school, the family and the student which will help parents staff and students to work successfully together and help improve standards of education for pupils. This is done through a variety of ways ranging from regular homework for parents to complete with their children and for pupils with learning difficulties a variety of visual and auditory activities are sent home. Each term targets are set for the pupils and parents are sent copies to help them support learning, an example cited was the suggestion parents allow their children to handle money and pay for the weekly shop to help increase their understanding of money in relation to maths.
Pupils also have a home school communication book. The school runs workshops throughout the academic year to help parents participate in their child’s education and have included in the past Sing-along training or Literacy and ICT workshops. The school also places great emphasis on parental help in the education process in the form of parental “class assistants”. The school takes great pride in the fact several parents have gone on to forge a career as a teacher after starting out as “class assistants”. The Head Teacher stressed the partnership revolved around good lines of communication between both parties.
In the arena of parent/teacher consultations, Bastiani (1992) identified particular pre-requisites for success in ensuring that both parties are heard. Firstly, she suggests that parents must have sufficient information about the nature, purpose and length of the convened meeting and an opportunity to clarify and add items to the agenda. Secondly, a constructive focus needs to be established and decisions on subsequent actions to be taken understood and agreed by all participants. It must be recognised that some parents will require more support in these matters than others. Finally, as highlighted by DfES (1997), schools need to consider carefully the range of opportunities they can provide for parents to become involved and also the forms of assistance that might be needed to enable parents to participate fully.
Tizard et al (1981); Hannon (1985); Mills (1996) and Beveridge (2004) are keen to stress there is much evidence for the effectiveness of well-planned schemes of parental involvement in the teaching of reading. Moreover Mills (1996) highlights the crucial role that parents can play in developing literacy skills with their children, pointing out that the “one-to-one” relationship is clearly more valuable to the child than the “30 to one” ratio typical in the average classroom. Mills (1996) suggests that simply sending books home is insufficient but also notes that “parents may sometimes need support and advice about effective models of hearing their children read”. As Warren and Young (2002) succinctly advocate “appropriate instructional materials and teaching methodologies should be utilized.
Gregory (2000) echoes this view and expresses concerns that traditional schemes may not be suitable for all families. She recommends that schools consider different approaches which might better fit the needs of families. For example, a sole focus on story books might be extended, or replaced, by making use of other kinds of literacy experiences at home and also to include other members of the family and community. The aim here is not simply to follow the school’s approach to literacy, and indeed other curriculum goals and activities, but to build bridges between home and school. Such home-school partnership arrangements may foster literacy acquisition but it has to be noted this makes inherent presuppositions about the abilities of parents from a diversity of backgrounds and cultures to support the literacy development of their children. Not all parents possess the motivation let alone the cognitive ability to enhance the literacy acquisition of their children.
Warren and Young (2002) draw attention to the importance parental involvement plays in boosting positive learning attitudes amongst children in Mathematics, Science and Technology because “academic learning activities that are completed at home promote the child’s achievement at school” and this further impacts on a positive learning culture as “parent and child attitudes about school become more positive through academic interactions”. Parents who embrace an unrestrained joy for a particular area of the national curriculum and who transmit such infectious enthusiasm to their children need to be harnessed by schools. This is what Freud (1991) terms “projection” or the transference of an emotion or character trait onto another person. Parents who project positive learning attitudes onto their children need to be nurtured by schools because they help foster an intrinsic motivation within children to learn for the sheer pleasure of it.
Recent government initiatives such as “Every Child Matters” and “Higher Standards, Better Schools for All – More Choice for Parents and Pupils” has urged schools to be a more socially cohesive and responsible participant in community relations as well as fostering closer home-school partnerships. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is at the forefront of facilitating this challenge and connecting home and school through an array of initiatives. Firstly it offers wholesale opportunities for children by providing continuity of learning outside regular school hours and parents provide appropriate mentoring, challenge and support. This presupposes the ICT infrastructure within schools can cope with the rapid growth of collaborative learning and schools need to formulate cohesive and appropriate e-learning strategies.
Secondly it empowers parents to support their children’s learning vis-à-vis responsibility, informed choice and appropriate support. Impact on the engagement of parents can be profound through skilful use of a school’s website or virtual learning environment to suggest how parents can supplement and support the national curriculum. There is the scope for wider engagement as long as ICT is used in a meaningful way. It has benefits for both parents and schools; parental participation will increase if they are given a real voice which in turn provides schools with raw data on how best to serve the interests of its pupils and their parents.
Thirdly, the home environment is a hub of learning powered by the dynamics of the internet and schools can provide valuable advice and guidance to parents on the use of ICT to support pupil learning outside the classroom. Some schools have set up homework clinics and utilize parents as “on-line experts” to bring together the rich tapestry of ICT and parental resources in educating children. Again this presupposes parents have a tacit and intimate relationship with ICT skills and such skills have to be framed around legitimate data protection issues.
Finally, it acts as a focus for a culture of learning within the community as a whole but this almost presents more challenges than rewards. For instance, should the level and location of remote access be fixed or mobile or perhaps a combination of both, what are the logistics of this and what are the financial costs of such access, how can secure and safe access to personal work files be guaranteed, how can genuine collaborative engagement with other learners be rendered, how do parents interpret and respond to the assessment of their children’s e-learning and how and who will provide appropriate parental training to enable them to fully support ICT home-school practice. Nevertheless a modern ICT home-school partnership offers up an abundance of resources outside the remit of traditional teaching methodology and offers substantial potential for fostering positive learning attitudes amongst children.
Mills (1996) has recorded that whilst many schools have developed strong home/school links with parents, especially through reading schemes, there has been less success in minority language communities and suggests that “schools have found that cultural and linguistic differences have created barriers to collaboration” and this has impacted negatively upon children’s academic progress and motivation at school. Similarly, Berk (2004) observes that many ethnic minority parents are uncomfortable about going to school and often “lack the skills, knowledge and confidence to support their children’s progress in majority culture language work”. Ofsted (2000) claims black and ethnic minority pupils are disadvantaged by an education system that perpetuates inequalities. This then creates a barrier to fostering sufficient levels of parental involvement amongst ethnic minorities.
Mills (1996) describes the experiences of Asian parents in Birmingham, most particularly those from Pakistani, Northern India and Bangladeshi cultures. Evidence from initiatives in two Birmingham primary schools to foster home-school links yielded a number of recommendations for schools in minority language communities.
These include the development of books and information in a variety of local languages as well as the use of multicultural materials and activities within the school for all pupils to generate an atmosphere of greater understanding and inclusion for all children, regardless of cultural background. Most importantly, as Mills (1996) asserts, parents need to feel positively welcomed by the school through the creation of a genuinely open environment. Berk (2004) underlines this view and suggests that teachers must make extra efforts to integrate “ethnic minority values and practices into classroom life and regularly contact parents who don’t come to conferences and school events”.
Many commentators have situated the notion of partnership between schools, parents and the community within the wider context of school ethos and inclusive practice. Dyson (1997), for example, has observed that many of the educational difficulties experienced by children, such as disaffection, disruption and underachievement are associated with social disadvantage. Croll (2002) underlines this and highlights the clear links, also, between parental socio-economic status and social, emotional and behavioural problems, as well as the learning difficulties which come under the banner of “special educational needs”. Parents’ experience of high levels of stress, perhaps in poorer, “run-down” neighbourhoods, can adversely affect not only their interactions with their children but also their dealings with education and related services (Beveridge, 2004).
Teachers may hold stereotypical, negative views of such families which impede the quality of home-school relationships. Bastiani (1997) points out the increasing recognition that there is a diversity of successful parenting styles and that teachers can acknowledge this and adopt a more positive approach which builds on parents’ own strategies for raising their children. Ball (1998) and White (1997) have reported on successful Portage schemes for parents of children with learning difficulties involving short-term learning targets agreed with parents. Beveridge (2004), however, highlights the potential stigmatising effects of these schemes when they are limited to families with children deemed as having ‘special educational needs’ and argues that these specific strategies should be available for all families.
The current push for schools to be placed at the centre of the community (DfES, 2003) has been championed by Berk (2004) as a prime opportunity to nurture the collaborative work of teachers, parents and children. She cites Connors and Epstein (1996) who argued that “when parents are involved in school activities, talk regularly with teachers, monitor their child’s progress and help with homework, children show better academic achievement” (Berk, 2004, p.206). It seems that the strategies adopted by schools to establish strong home/school links must be situated within the wider educational ethos and practice of the school in order to be truly effective. Factors such as co-operative dialogues, joint problem-solving, staff training and support are flagged up as key objectives for the whole school in order to provide “experiences for children that are as encouraging, enriching and educative as possible”. (Berk, 2004).
Within the true spirit of partnership, however, the ethos of the “learning community” demands that all those involved in this inclusive enterprise of educative enrichment need to play an active role. Thus, as Berk (2004) suggests, parents also have a responsibility to become knowledgeable about what constitutes high quality education and they can then press for better classroom experiences for their children. Teachers and parents, together with children, need to build bridges and it seems crucial that each plays an active role if their strategies are to be truly reciprocal and successful. Further to this the child’s perspective is an integral part of this reciprocity. Children are active social agents and not merely passive recipients of learning processes and they have a “personal perspective on their own experiences, aspirations and needs which cannot be inferred from having adults speak on their behalf” (Beveridge, 2004).
In conclusion, then, primary schools can do much to engender strong home/school links, particularly through the cultivation of more positive and non-judgemental attitudes towards families, in recognition of the contribution that all families can make towards their children’s education whatever their social and cultural background. As commentators such as Beveridge (2004) and Berk (2004) have highlighted, however, true partnership implies that all those involved, adults and children alike, have a role to play in the development of successful collaborative strategies. In terms of the particular role played by primary schools, it would seem that strategies rooted in a “whole school” philosophy of genuine inclusion which values and respects the views of parents and children are those which are most likely to make a positive difference in terms of children’s attitudes to learning.
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