Parents: partners in education

Eileen Prior argues that 'at home good parenting' alone is not enough. Raising expectations for all of our young people is a complex challenge which requires us to look beyond the school gates and the front door.

Not so many years ago, the role of parents and carers was very straightforward when it came to education: it was parents' job to make sure their offspring arrived at school on time, in uniform (if required) and with homework done (if required). They could organise social events and fundraising to help the school, but parents were seen as having no active role in how schools were run or in the learning that took place in them.

Only in recent years have the role and impact of parents in the education of their children been reconsidered. In fact, parents and parenting have never been under greater scrutiny. We now know that reading, playing, talking and social interaction between parents and pre-school children are not simply desirable, but necessary for the long-term wellbeing and educational attainment of the child. We have a clear insight into the impact on educational attainment of low birth weight, parental expectations and mothers' attainment, poverty and health.

We also know that when parents are engaged with their children's education, young people tend to do better at school.

Parents as educators

The cumulative effect this new understanding has been to turn the spotlight firmly on parents as primary educators and to catapult parental involvement in schools onto the policy stage. As a result, and particularly since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, parenting and parent engagement now appear on policy documents as a way of addressing the issue of young people who are not achieving their potential, or in the extreme, are leaving school with no qualifications and no prospect of employment or training.

But, while we know quite a bit about the impact of health and socio-economic factors on educational attainment, it is perhaps surprising there has been little research in the UK into the impact of parental involvement. We are committed to the principle without knowing precisely how it makes a difference.

Parental involvement

Professor Charles Desforges (Desforges and Abouchaar 2003), is one of the most significant academics working in this area. His analysis of the research (for the most part coming from the US) up to 2003 led him to conclude that there are two quite distinct types of parental involvement: spontaneous engagement because they are motivated to do so, and the interventions by professionals designed specifically to engage parents in their child's education or school.

The first category is well researched but the second is primarily anecdotal. Desforges demonstrates that spontaneous parental involvement generally occurs when parents are middle to upper class; the mother achieved success in higher or further education; there is no deprivation or ill health; both parents are together; the child is in their early years at school and showing high levels of attainment; the family is white and/or from a western cultural background.

Desforges uses the term at-home good parenting as the factor which has a significant positive effect on children's achievement even after all other factors shaping attainment have been taken out of the equation. In the primary age range the impact caused by different levels of parental involvement is much bigger than differences associated with variation in the quality of schools. The scale of the impact is evident across all social classes and all ethnic groups.

Of course, common sense tells us that 'at-home good parenting' is a reality for children from many different backgrounds, and that poor parenting - when defined in these terms - exists in both affluent and deprived homes. It is surely simplistic to suggest that the equation is good parenting equals good educational outcomes. If this were the case, then the work of teachers and schools would be for nought: something we also know to be untrue. High-quality teaching, which makes learning purposeful and relevant, makes probably the most significant impact on outcomes for young people, though the OECD report, Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland (2007), makes it clear that who you are continues to make too much difference to outcomes in our schools.

Positive aspirations

In fact, Mongon and Chapman (2012) argue that nearly all parents have positive general aspirations for their children (Cuthbert and Hatch 2008:3) and that 'it has been an act of faith for many school and children's service leaders to believe that a closer connection with families would lead to better outcomes for young people.' They continue: "Spontaneous" parental involvement (in crude terms, a "good home") is associated with positive outcomes. In contrast, the evidence from "enhanced" parental involvement (in crude terms, programmes to involve parents) is at best inconclusive albeit showing high levels of appreciation from the adults involved (Desforges and Abouchaar 2003). Desforges concludes that this does not mean that parental involvement cannot be promoted: on the contrary, he writes, if the best of what is known about parental engagement is applied then real progress is possible.

Positive aspirations may be a common factor among most parents, but the realities of some families' lives mean that these may be in short supply. Raising expectations for all of our young people is a complex challenge which requires us to look beyond the school gates and the front door. This is in accordance with the perspective of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC): parents almost universally are interested in their children and care about their education, but some are hindered from acting on that concern.

Parents as advocates

Parents are advocates for their own children. How that advocacy role is fulfilled can vary: confident and articulate parents generally adopt a problem solving approach but if the school, its structures and its learning are a mystery to parents, the approach may be quite different, ranging from disengagement to strategies that could be seen as unacceptable. SPTC argues that parents who are characterised as having no concern for their children's education - and who may be held responsible by some teachers for poor educational outcomes - are, in fact, guilty of neither.

For most young people, the need to have parent advocates lessens as they grow up and exert their independence from parents. Spontaneous parental involvement levels between primary and secondary schools show this quite clearly: secondary schools up and down the country find it difficult to engage parents. A combination of factors creates this situation, but probably most significant are the sometimes challenging curriculum (particularly if parents themselves have struggled at school) and the labyrinthine nature of large secondaries, where lines of communication for parents are often unclear and personal connections are limited.

In Scotland, the introduction of parent forums and parent councils can be seen as a deliberate strategy to engage all parents at a school: the act of faith identified by Mongon and Chapman. This also places on parents an expectation that they move beyond their traditional role as advocates for their own children, take on a role of involvement with their child's school and, potentially, the country's educational policy. This is an ambitious expectation, and when it is considered in the light of the challenges which many parents face, it is not difficult to see where the faultlines are.

With parental involvement now on the policy map, we have to ask if the reality is living up to expectations, delivering greater parental involvement with the educational structures and, perhaps, leading to greater parental engagement with the education of their children.

Genuine engagement

In SPTC's view, we have a patchwork of parental involvement: in many schools, genuine and strenuous efforts are made to engage parents in the life of the school and the learning of the young people. At individual school and perhaps local authority level, the interventions are often valued and judged to be successful. In others, there is little or no proactive engagement. The difference comes down to varying support from the departments and agencies involved in advancing parental involvement, individual school management and the vagaries of 32 local authorities each organising education services differently.

Genuine parental engagement is important in supporting young people and schools, and we must get better at developing, implementing and sharing good practice. However, that does not tell the whole story. High quality schools, inspirational teachers and clear communication about the purpose of learning are critical too: without these being in place, 'at home good parenting' alone will not deliver.

About the author

Eileen Prior is the executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, a third sector organisation offering support and information on all aspects of education to parents and carers in Scotland. She has been a ministerial nominee on the General Teaching Council Scotland since 2005. Her previous career was in PR, both running her own business and as a director of the Scottish operation of Weber Shandwick. She has also been a volunteer board member with charities supporting children and families.


Cuthbert, C. D. and Hatch, R. (2008). "Educational aspiration and attainment amongst young people in deprived communities". Social Policy Association conference 29th June-1st July 2009. Edinburgh.

Desforges, C. and Abouchaar, A. (2003). The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: a literature review. London: Department for Education and Skills

Mongon, D. and Chapman, C. (2012). High-leverage leadership: improving outcomes in educational settings. London: Routledge

OECD (2007). Reviews of national policies for education: quality and equity of schooling in Scotland. OECD