Can a school make parents accountable for being active contributors in their child’s learning journey?

16 February 2017

In a recent opinion piece, published in various News Corp publications including The West Australian and the Daily Telegraph, Kylie Lang argued that it is parents, not schools, who are to blame for our recent education crisis.  In this article, Craig D’cruz, National Education Consultant at CompliSpace, addresses the issues discussed in Ms Lang’s article and adds his thoughts on the topic.

Lang stated; “As simplistic as it might sound in this age of rigorous national testing and international ranking, the family environment remains the single most important determinant of how a child fares in the classroom. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — it has been proven in landmark studies dating back 50 years — yet how conveniently and consistently we pass the buck to other people or things to “fix” our kids. It is unfair and unproductive to hold schools solely responsible".

If parents really sit down and have a good hard look at what they do, they would realise that they have an enormous influence on their children’s education for many reasons, but most importantly because they are their children’s first teachers.

Apart from learning how to crawl and walk, which parents assist but do not necessarily teach, they teach their children communication conventions, to be able to share, to be toilet independent (trained), to develop social skills (as simple as saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’) to be able to show love and care in acceptable ways and to be more independent little people.

Most parents take this one step further. They model positive family values and relationships and quality social norms. They read to their children and engage them in meaningful play and in inquiry approached learning (without any formal training). They encourage their children to be 'aware of strangers', to be able to recall their home address and telephone number, to share and learn nursery rhymes, to take careful risks (such as when they learn to swim), to identify the letters and sounds of the alphabet, to read simple words and stories, to count, to draw and they encourage their children to make simple decisions such as choosing their clothes of choice for the day.

Professor Charles Desforges, 2003 in DfES Research Report 433 noted that “parental involvement in the form of 'at-home good parenting' has a significant positive effect on children's achievement and adjustment even after all other factors shaping attainment have been taken out of the equation".

However, Jen Gratz, in her publication “The Impact of Parents’ Background on their Children’s Education” quotes Marion Wright Edelman “ Parents have become so convinced that educators know what is best for their children that they forget that they themselves are really the experts".

I don’t know exactly when it happened, or why it happened, but there seems to have been a subtle shift in the perception of the roles of parents and schools over the past twenty or so years. Anecdotal evidence points out, that for whatever reason, children who are now entering the formal years of schooling do not have similar skill sets that children had twenty or thirty years ago. However, many have a demonstrable ability to use mobile technologies and they are quite adept in using tablets or other similar devices.

Where once it seemed that the majority of children would commence their formal school education being able to identify colours, count from one to ten or more, knowing their ‘ABC’s’ and being able to identify letters and some words, many children, although technologically confident, are entering school with reduced literacy and numeracy skills and some even have poorly developed social skills. I have had teachers tell me that they now regularly have children, who do not have special needs, who are not day time toilet independent when they commence their formal schooling.

For whatever reason, and not by all parents and not apparent in all schools, there seems to have been a shift in responsibility from parents to schools for more of the educational requirements for children. This is less apparent in the early years but seems to becoming far more apparent in later school years. This generation of parents seem to be incredibly time poor. They are so busy working to pay for their preferred home and lifestyle, that the time needed to really be responsible and accountable as an equal partner in their child’s education journey may have been diminished.

In addition, due to the increasing cost of living, many families cannot afford for one parent to stay at home with their children and so the use of child care facilities is becoming the norm. This is not a comment about changes in values, or about the good work that child care facilities do, but there certainly seems to have been considerable changes in how children are cared for pre-school and even before and after school each day.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent say ‘education is the school’s job, not mine’, or “I pay my fees for you to teach my child’, I would probably have realised sooner that this is becoming a common comment these days.

Carl Glickman in ‘Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do about the Real Crisis in Public Education’ noted that “Research repeatedly demonstrates that schools and school districts do better when parents are engaged as equal partners in the decision making that affects their children and their schools…Only through this richer level of engagement will parents and the public at large better understand their vital connection to quality public education”.

We often hear the terms ‘helicopter parents’ (Haim Ginott - Parents & Teenagers (1969)) and ‘tiger mums’ (Amy Chua - Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011)) being used to identify two ‘types’ of parent models that are identified by schools. These are the parents who drive their children to achieve at the highest of levels in all aspects of their lives- particularly academic. However, they can also be quite separate in how they function. These represent one extreme of the scale with regard to parenting styles. At the other end of the scale there are the parents who believe that they have no responsibility when it comes to the education of their children. Extremism at either end of the spectrum cannot possibly lead to positive school/home interactions regarding a child’s education.

Although one school in Britain may think that by giving parents an A-D grade that they can ‘encourage’ parents to be more proactive in their child’s education, schools in general cannot mandate the level of engagement that they expect from parents.

However, I think there are times that they wish they could. Parent/teacher interview nights are one example of this issue. Teachers will tell you that the parents who regularly attend and who want to be involved in their children’s education and academic progress are not the ones they desperately need to see. Yes, they are genuinely pleased to see these parents but they really want to see the parents of the children who are not doing as well at school or who have disciplinary issues. Once again, there is anecdotal evidence of a correlation between the children who are the least engaged in their learning process and their parents/guardians who are least seen being involved in their child’s education.

However, in the defence of parents, whilst it may be acceptable for primary aged children to involve their parents at school- they love showing their parents what they are learning and they want them to see their classroom and meet their friends. Teenagers, on the other hand would prefer that the earth opened up and swallowed their parents (or themselves) if their parents dared to step onto the campus during a school day to become involved in their child’s education.

Parents who are aware of this change and who still want to be involved and engaged in their child’s education should be able to offer assistance at home by engaging their children in conversation about the school day, setting times for homework and study and being available to assist, if called upon and if capable. It is important to note that some parents, due to a variety of reasons including language barriers, may be unable to or are embarrassed to assist their children with academic studies. For example, I would suggest that Year 12 calculus is probably beyond the reach of most people who have not studied it themselves.

It is also very important to note that academia is only one facet of the education narrative. Parents can assist with social issues, issues of discipline, involvement with local clubs and sporting teams, other pursuits such as the arts or hobbies or the development of religious beliefs. This socio-emotional development cannot possibly take place solely at the school. Most importantly, parents can instil a cultural acceptance that education is valuable and that school and home are both integrally involved in the education of their child.

Schools can assist by developing other methods of communication rather than just parent/teacher meetings or notes in diaries. Communication strategies between schools and parents was discussed in a previous School Governance article. Schools can also assist by developing strategies that encourage parental involvement both at home and at the school. Examples could include having parents rostered onto classroom reader schemes, asking parents to assist on excursions, camps and tours, involving them in coaching or managing sports teams, asking parents to attend and volunteer to speak on ‘career days’ and so forth. However, developing school-parent relationships through activities such as these need to be coordinated with the child’s level of social development.   As students get older, “it is equally critical for schools to support parents to have high aspirations and stay engaged".

The obligation for schools to involve all members of the school community in child safety, including parents and guardians, is also a common requirement of new child protection frameworks around Australia.  For example, the Victorian Guide for Creating a Child-Safe Organisation produced by the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People has multiple references to child safe policies and procedures applying and being communicated to parents.

So, as Lang suggested, are parents, not schools, to blame for our recent education crisis? I don’t think so. Society has changed, how we educate children has changed, our values and social norms have changed. Children are now learning concepts that their parents had never heard of in their school days and technology has completely changed how we communicate - even how we socialise.

I agree that there have been many changes in schools and the general perception in many schools is that a great deal of responsibility for the education of children has moved from being an equal partnership into a more imbalanced model with schools picking up the tab. However, to blame parents alone is too simplistic and it does not reflect all of the other changes, many occurring too rapidly to allow for societal norms to catch up, that are all intricately interwoven into the changing education landscape.

How does your school engage parents in the educational journey of their child?


Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.