Totalised policies about parental engagement can only travel a certain distance. As John Braithwaite wrote: ‘the key…nut to crack is the ordering of local knowledge’(Braithwaite, 2000). It makes sense that strategies intended to influence the behaviour of parents should speak to, and from, the parents themselves.
As school systems, principals and parents are now well-aware, there is overwhelming evidence of long-term benefit for children, and potentially also for schools, if families and communities are effectively engaged in children’s education. In recent years, there has been considerable effort devoted to encouraging – and in some cases, requiring — schools to show increased effort in outward engagement. The project, though, is considered just too hard by many schools. It is not teaching. It requires time, energy and money that isn’t to spare. There may also be governance, privacy, security and other cross-sectoral issues.
Schools have been provided with tools and lists of strategies to engage parents that has been demonstrated to ‘work’ by population-based evidence. These undoubtedly do work. Somewhere. Perhaps in lots of places. But will they lead a particular school, in a particular location, with a particular cohort of parents, to the switched-on exchange between home and school that the parental engagement project really looks for?
What ‘works’, but for who?
Relevant here is the contemporary scholarly stream of realist governmentality, which examines the micro-dynamics of interplay between strategies of influence and response amongst stakeholders. It was engaged in a study of community housing tenants in Edinburgh, Scotland (McKee, 2011). There, the local community housing authority devised a process for ‘empowering’ tenants to make decisions about how their high-rise complex was run. It didn’t work. No one showed up. Turned out that tenants weren’t so interested in being empowered as they were in getting their leaking bathrooms fixed.
The phenomenon of the intended subject of a ‘helpful’ intervention failing to show up is not an uncommon one in social policy. People see problems differently. If a strategy doesn’t help with a problem as a particular subject sees it, it will not, and will never, ‘work’ for that person.
What does this mean for the problem of parental engagement? Depending on the very particular character of every school in the context of its wider local community, the barriers to and enablers of greater participation by parents vary greatly: across different socio-economic groups, different ethnicities, cultural orientations, levels of exposure to addiction and violence, levels of physical and mental health, and the continuum of aspiration. It will be difficult, though not impossible, for a parent to prioritise engagement in a child’s learning journey — no matter how generally friendly and outward-pointing a school might be — if daily life for the parent is tough and disappointing, and the future prospects grim. Or if they are, daily, nine hours in the office, and three in a commute.
On the flip-side, research shows that if schools are able to touch the lives of their families at the specific points of pressure that are highly relevant to them – whether they might be the pressures of affluence, poverty, or something in between — then those same factors that otherwise impede parental engagement can become pointers to, and vehicles for, a solution (Woodrow, Somerville, & Naidoo, 2016).
So it is crucial that a school wanting to succeed in new efforts to engage families must, in the first instance, be able to accurately describe what its specific cohort of parents needs and wants to help them to prioritise connection, and then to be able to connect, with their children’s education.
One thing that matters…
But what then? Large scale, integrated responses to problems like unemployment, poverty, poor health and long-working hours are clearly out of the question. An alternative, perhaps, is to just to start: to do one thing that helps. It might be a weekly afternoon visit by a local family lawyer, dietitian, counsellor or speech pathologist. It might be a kitchen garden, a parents’ choir, a playgroup, a chess club, a Shakespearean reading group, an ESL conversation hub, parent indoor soccer team, an adult education class… What counts is that the thing matters to the parents. Our parents.
Following Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of the ‘tipping point’ (2002), little things can indeed make a big difference. Just one perfectly calibrated outward offering, gently pushing, as Gladwell suggests, ‘in just the right place’, may be contagious. It could open a trickle that turns into a torrent of positive energy and initiative that re-makes and re-charges the culture of a school, and the quality of the educational experience it delivers. At the very least, that one new carefully-chosen initiative is more than likely to ‘work’ and, perhaps more importantly, to help.
The parents receptive to cookie-cutter engagement strategies may not exist in your neighbourhood or mine. Rather, the crucial data for effective parental engagement is lying around in the backyards of our communities. What is the pulse of that community? Who are our people? What matters to them? What would help? Just one thing.