An enterprising parent secured a deal with a publisher to sell
cut-price books at my local school’s summer fete last month. The
place was absolutely heaving.
But it wasn’t the discount copies of Harry Potter and the
Order of the Phoenix that was responsible for families
arriving in droves. Such is the level of involvement of parents in
this small primary school that good attendance was pretty much
The benefits are apparent. Participation of parents in the life
of this school brings huge dividends – and not just in terms of
augmenting the school’s coffers. For, as research suggests, when it
comes to supporting children’s learning, parents matter.
From an early age, a child’s approach to learning is shaped by
the actions and attitudes of their parents; by the time a child
reaches school age parental influence on learning is already
discernible. But once formal education begins, much rests on the
relationship that parents have with their child’s school. Good
parent-teacher communication can help raise expectations, improve
the school’s understanding of the opportunities and constraints
influencing a child’s capacity to learn and, crucially, ensure that
information about a child’s well-being is shared.
When it comes to bullying, for example, it is often parents who
are the first to pick up the signs: a child who is reluctant to go
to school, or who becomes anxious or withdrawn. In recent years,
schools have been charged with greater responsibility to tackle
bullying – every school now has to have an anti-bullying policy.
But such policies are worthless unless they are implemented in
partnership with parents, to ensure that bullying is being tackled
inside and outside the school gates.
Teachers are increasingly expected to put more time into
improving links between school and home. Practices are changing.
All schools are now required to draw up a home-school agreement,
setting out the respective responsibilities of the school, pupils
and parents. In most schools parent-teacher contact is no longer
confined to parents’ evenings. And some schools have developed new
ways to engage parents in the life of the school, with regular and
less formal contact. By opening up schools to a range of community
activities, parents are being invited to spend more time in the
school surroundings, helping to break down the communication
barriers that can arise from being in an unfamiliar
But most of the good practice remains in the primary school
sector; many secondary schools still feel like no-go areas for
parents. Joe Hallgarten, who leads the education team at the
Institute for Public Policy Research, titled his book about
parent-school relationships Parents Exist, OK? after
spotting some graffiti outside a London school. The phrase seemed
to aptly sum up the school experience for all too many parents.
Part of the reason for this enduring cultural difference between
primary and secondary schools lies in the extra pressure secondary
schools are under to achieve other priorities. For all the
rhetoric, improvements in home-school links are still considered
less of a concern than raising standards of individual attainment.
And this despite the evidence that parental involvement in a
child’s learning contributes towards this goal.
Add to this the recent focus, highlighted by teacher unions, of
the need to protect teachers from a small minority of aggressive
parents and the enduring, if inaccurate, impression is that
teachers would rather parents didn’t bother them quite so much.
But it will take more than a reallocation of priorities and
resources for secondary schools to becoming parent-friendly places.
The power relations between professionals and parents also have to
change. Parents need to be recognised as citizens who are actively
involved in their child’s learning, not seen simply as consumers of
services that teachers deliver. This is not about devaluing the
specialist expertise of teachers, but about seeing the educating
role as something that can only ever be successfully delivered in
partnership with parents.
Changing the parent-teacher relationship is also more than about
achieving the optimal circumstances for children’s learning. As
teachers increasingly come under pressure to cure society of all
ills, we are in danger of expecting them to take on the
responsibilities of parents. As governors of learning, teachers
have a profound influence on children’s lives. But we cannot expect
them to be guardians of all aspects of children’s well-being.
Breaking down the barriers between home and school will ultimately
Lisa Harker is chairperson of the Daycare