The power of parental involvement - even in post-16

The power of parental involvement - even in post-16
Date11th Jul 2022AuthorNoni CsogorCategoriesPolicy and News

This article was initially published under the title 'Balancing Parental Support and Independence of 16-18 Year Olds in Further Education'  here.

The active involvement of parents and guardians in education and school life is highly correlated with academic achievement - moreso, according to long-running research, than school quality itself. (e.g. Becher, 1989).

The challenge educationalists and researchers have been grappling with, however, is that it is difficult to find a robust link between interventions that increase parental involvement and improved achievement for children. The reality is that high parental involvement and high achievement seem to simply be found together.

This doesn’t mean that increasing parental involvement is impossible or undesirable, but that the causality is more complicated; there are factors which mediate the effects of parental involvement. Most obviously, these include class and social capital, which are generally outside a sixth form’s remit to change.

However, they also include parental beliefs and attitudes about education and the quality of communication between educational institutions and parents, which are more malleable.

Parental Support for the Transition at 16

Acting on the knowledge that parental involvement is powerful is made even more difficult by the transition to post-16 education, particularly where that means students attending a new institution like a sixth form or further education college. As the difficulty and specificity of the material studied increases, it becomes much less likely that parents will understand what their child is working on day-to-day – whether that is analysis of English literature or practical approaches to delivering health and social care.

16-18 Year Olds are More Independent

The subjects their child is learning are now often far removed from their own experiences of work or schooling, and so directly supporting education through help with homework or discussion of content becomes harder. There is also the simple fact that 16-18 year olds are rightly expected to be more independent, and their parents accordingly less involved.

It is rare for a sixth form college or 16-19 school to have a PTA/’Friends of’ group. Two years is a short time for most parents to invest in getting involved in a college community when their children are, at least in theory, old enough to manage their own learning and activities. That doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t add value to that learning at all. We just need to be extra intentional in the ways we choose to engage parents.

Parental Communication by College Leaders

While many parents may be unable to enrich their children’s knowledge of sixth form content, they can have a major positive effect by helping them entrench effective habits related to learning. For example, a whole college might decide, based on research evidence and some recent feedback from Ofsted, to institute a stricter policy on mobile phone use in lessons or on campus. Or the head of history might decide, after being inspired by other institutions in their MAT or their college group, that their A level students will receive more feedback through group discussion and less from written marking.

Chris Atherton, principal at Sir John Deane’s College in Cheshire and co-author of What Every Parent Should Know about Education, discusses implementing the latter policy across all subjects, and communicating it to parents. As he writes, too much communication across disparate topics, from homework deadlines to trip payments, can cause parents to zone out. While there are educational benefits to texting parents with regular reminders of this kind in primary schools, as the Education Endowment Foundation has found, similar American research with 18 year-olds has found no effect (Castleman and Page, 2017).

So while colleges should have effective systems for reaching parents with urgent and welfare-related messages, it makes sense to be focused and specific with educational communications to parents. Changes, especially those students may not agree with or fully understand, are more important than individual deadlines – and enabling parents to back up the college’s choices and explain them to students allows the college’s learning culture to extend into the home.

Chris Atherton has found that it is key to explain both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of a practice like reducing marking, making it concrete to parents, tying it to the college’s values, and repeating it in a large variety of settings through simple statements. Most importantly, parents must see the change happening; make sure it is enacted in all classrooms and that it is having the positive effect you hoped for, and then communicate that back to parents so that they can strengthen the message at home.

When Not to Use Parental Engagement

The areas in which parents can – or should – help will vary by setting and student. For students with high needs, or simply those who procrastinate, tried and tested methods like texting parents and carers about deadlines coming up can be very powerful. This support can gradually be removed as students become more confident in planning their assignments in good time. Part of benefiting from parental involvement and engagement at post-16 is about knowing when not to use it!

Recommendation 1

Post-16 college and school leaders should be selective, identifying the most important area of 16-18 learning in their setting where parents can have the greatest impact.

Recommendation 2

Post-16 college and school leaders should be sensitive to their parent population. If many parents do not read English well, text-based communications are likely to be less effective than in-person conversations where leaders can gauge understanding. Digital poverty is a similar factor.

Recommendation 3

Post-16 college and school leaders and teachers should consider how best to balance building autonomy and self-regulation of their students with engaging the power of parental persuasion, which can undermine that independence.

Noni Csogor is research and policy manager at the Sixth Form Colleges Association.

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