This bitesize CPD unit is designed to support school leaders to improve their approach to parental and community engagement in their school setting. This unit acts as an introduction to Module 5 of the Leading Inclusive Schools course. This a series of six online modules designed to support school leaders to understand the principles of inclusive leadership. Module 5 of this course aims to equip school leaders with the knowledge, tools and confidence to collaborate with parents and the wider school community as partners in learning.
This bitesize unit aims to highlight the importance of collaborating with parents and the wider community, providing a range of evidence-informed strategies to enhance engagement. By the end of this unit, you will:
- recognise some of the benefits of engaging with parents and the wider community, considering some of the potential barriers that may impede this
- be aware of a range of evidence-informed strategies that can enhance engagement
- begin to evaluate the ways in which your school engages with parents and their wider community, applying what you have learnt to identify opportunities for your school to enhance its work in this area.
This unit incorporates a range of content to support understanding, critical reflection and practical implementation, including:
- a video presentation to introduce and explore the key terms and research in this area
- a research review that summarises the best-available evidence on this area
- learning activities to support critical reflection and practical implementation
- a reading list to take your learning further
- a link to our Leading Inclusive Schools course.
This unit should take approximately one hour to complete, plus additional time for further reading and discussions with colleagues. The content and activities have been sequenced to support understanding and we recommend that it is completed in this order.
The term ‘parental engagement’ can mean many different things to different people, depending on context. Schools work with parents in a range of ways and with varying aims. The broad scope of the term can make it challenging for school leaders to review and refine their approach effectively. The following video provides an introduction to the term ‘parental engagement’. It aims to define key terms, introduce key research literature underpinning best practice in this area and provide prompts for reflection and/or further discussion with your colleagues.
Pause and reflect
Before watching the video, take a moment to think about your own school context. How does your school currently show that it values and supports parents, families and carers? More specifically, you may want to consider how your school:
- approaches making parents, families and carers feel welcome in the school building
- celebrates parents, families and carers
- supports parents, families and carers to take an active role in their child’s learning
- contributes to family life
As explained in the video above, the evidence base around parental engagement is somewhat limited. Nonetheless, there are a number of key reads that provide an excellent starting point for our work in this area. The following research review attempts to summarise the research literature on parental and community engagement. It explores the evidence surrounding the benefits of, and barriers to, engaging with the wider school community, including parents, families and other community organisations that have an involvement with children. It outlines some strategies for engaging the school community, focusing on the role of leadership in supporting inclusive school development.
Engaging with the wider school community
Victoria Cook, Research Specialist, Chartered College of Teaching
The 2009 UNESCO-IBE policy guidelines on An approach where a school aims to ensure that all children ... More in education recognise that inclusive schools encourage the participation of the learners, their families and their communities. More recently, UNESCO (2016: 47) identified a partnership between staff and families as one of eight inclusion indicators to be used as a framework for reviewing schools and identifying areas for development.
The benefits of engaging with parents and other stakeholders
Respectful interactions with all stakeholders should be part of a school’s ethos (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2017), and can bring many benefits. Families and communities have knowledge of their children that professionals do not have (UNESCO-IBE, 2016). Engaging with parents and other stakeholders can increase the learning and participation of all children (Li, 2022), while involvement with the local community and employers can help to increase curriculum relevance and work opportunities (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2017). Furthermore, multi-agency working can help to support school transitions and meet the needs of learners from families facing multiple problems (Welsh Government, 2015). For example, special schools and units can act as resource centres, supporting regular schools to become more inclusive (UNESCO, 2017).
The family and community engagement toolkit for schools in Wales, which is designed to help schools to plan and deliver effective family and community engagement as part of a whole-school approach, argues that:
‘to be truly effective, family engagement must be part of a carefully planned cycle which establishes mutual priorities, builds trust and helps parents/carers and teachers to commit to a joint plan.’ (Welsh Government, 2015, p. 4)
The toolkit recognises that parents have unique knowledge about their children and diverse experiences and skills that can enrich and strengthen school life. Good two-way communication is key to encouraging families to engage with school life and ensure that their voices are heard. This engagement, in turn, is an important precursor to engaging with families as partners in their child’s learning, which is the ultimate goal. Such engagement is important for raising standards, improving learner wellbeing and narrowing the poverty attainment gap (Welsh Government, 2015).
Evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit (EEF, 2021) suggests that effective parental engagement can have a positive impact of, on average, four months’ additional progress over the course of a year, with higher impacts for pupils with low prior attainment. However, the evidence surrounding parental engagement and attainment is far from clear-cut. Gorard and See (2013) conducted a review of the evidence on parental involvement interventions and attainment. They discuss how research has shown that, on average, a child with parent(s) fully engaged in their learning will score more highly on standardised tests of attainment than a child without such parents. However, in their review of 68 studies, they concluded that there is no high-quality research evidence to suggest a causal link between parental involvement and attainment.
Barriers to engaging the school community
Family engagement is rarely evenly distributed. Some families may interact with the school less frequently and others may have needs that are harder to accommodate. A variety of barriers to family engagement have been identified:
- Time pressures of family life
- Family circumstances: families may be dealing with a variety of issues, including poverty, caring responsibilities, and physical and mental health problems; language may be a barrier between home and school, or the family structure may be complicated
- Geography and physical barriers: families may have far to travel, be reliant on public transport or have disabilities or health problems
- Lack of confidence: parents/carers may have unhappy memories of their own school days or feel disadvantaged by their own lack of knowledge or skills (e.g. low literacy); they may fear judgement from others or feel that they don’t fit in
- Suspicion and mistrust: parents/carers may think that they won’t be listened to and taken seriously. (Welsh Government, 2015)
Overcoming these barriers is critical to ensuring that all families are engaged. However, this list is far from exhaustive, and it is suggested that leaders complete an audit or reflective activity to understand the specific barriers in their own context (Welsh Government, 2015). This is particularly important to reach the families of learners from deprived backgrounds or those who are underperforming, and the families who appear disengaged from their child’s learning.
Strategies for engaging the school community
Community partnerships can help a school with its family engagement work (Welsh Government, 2015). The school may use other community venues for certain activities (swimming pools, theatres or museums) or open up its own facilities for local groups to use. Local businesses can support school events and contribute to children’s learning by offering visits or work placements. In addition, providing a range of formal and informal volunteering opportunities in school enables parents to share their skills with students (Welsh Government, 2015).
Embedding parental engagement in teaching and learning policies and school improvement policies will help to ensure that parents are viewed as an integral part of the student learning process (Harris and Goodall, 2007). However, a recent EEF guidance report suggests that evidence on effective strategies that schools can use to engage parents in their children’s learning is mixed (Van Poortlviet et al., 2018). The report therefore offers four practical and evidence-based recommendations for schools seeking to work with parents to support children’s learning.
The first recommendation is for schools to critically review their current practice, and plan and monitor how they want to work with parents. A school’s plan should be informed by conversations with parents to ensure that it is relevant for all families in their context, and it also needs to address the support, resources and time required for all staff involved. For example, training is important to consider for those staff who work most closely with parents (Harris and Goodall, 2007). Schools could also provide practical guidance to help parents to understand how they can support their children’s learning at home. The ways in which families can support children to learn change as they move through the different stages of education. During secondary school, direct parental involvement in learning activities (e.g. homework) becomes less important, but there are other indirect ways in which parents can support children to learn (Table 1).
Table 1: Effective ways in which families can support children to learn (Welsh Government, 2015, pp. 19–20)
The third recommendation offered by the EEF focuses on tailoring school communication to encourage positive dialogue about learning (Van Poortlviet et al., 2018). The importance of personalised communication is particularly noted. At Surrey Square Primary in Southwark, which serves a highly disadvantaged, diverse community, all staff take part in training that focuses on tools for building positive relationships and confronting difficult issues with parents(Gross et al., 2022). A monitoring system is in place to ensure that teachers have at least three positive conversations with parents (in person or on the telephone) each term about every child. The school employs a variety of communication methods, including emails, newsletters, text messages, posters and messages on a sticker on a child’s jumper (Gross et al., 2022).
The fourth and final recommendation offered by the EEF for working with parents focuses on offering sustained and intensive approaches to support parental engagement for specific children, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with behavioural difficulties (Van Poortlviet et al., 2018). At Surrey Square, the school has also developed a virtual Family Zone in the community, working alongside partners including Citizens UK, the National Literacy Trust and Sheffield University, to enable parents to access volunteer opportunities and courses relevant to their needs (including ESOL (English for speakers of other languages), literacy and Incredible Years parenting) (Gross et al., 2022). This helps to build parents’ efficacy and sense of belonging, as well as skills that can help them into employment.
Effective distributed leadership is essential for strong family and community engagement, driven by strong leadership from the top (Welsh Government, 2015). Distributed leadership promotes flexibility and sharing practice among all staff and school stakeholders (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2020). The European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2020) have proposed standards for inclusive school leadership practice at the community level. These outline what inclusive school leaders should do to build relationships with others outside the school, reflecting the three core functions of (1) setting the school’s direction in terms of its vision and values, (2) human development and (3) organisational development. They detail how, through working jointly with stakeholders in other sectors, inclusive leaders can build partnerships to efficiently use resources and create a more coherent approach for the benefit of learners, their families and school staff.
Dempster and Robbins (2022) have proposed a model for improving parental engagement for school leaders that centres around the four pillars of knowledge, environment, culture and communication. They argue that parents first need to understand why parental engagement is important and what good engagement looks like. It is important to create a welcoming and safe environment for parents in school and build a positive culture that is based on a trusted relationship between parents and the school. Finally, they discuss how carefully planned school communication is central to building positive relationships. However, any approach to parental engagement needs to be inclusive and tailored. Rashid and Tikly (2010) argue that a culturally inclusive school needs to consider how to effectively communicate with different parent groups, such as migrant parents. For example, translation may be provided to support engagement (Welsh Government, 2015). Furthermore, it is important to reflect and celebrate cultural, religious and linguistic The recognition of individual differences in terms of race, ... More in wall displays to help to create a welcoming environment for parents from different backgrounds (Rashid and Tikly, 2010). It is also important that communication is two-way, to enable parents to feed back to the school (Welsh Government, 2015). Groups such as the parent teacher association or parent council can provide a specific communication channel to ensure that the voices of parents are heard and acted on (Welsh Government, 2015).
Aston H and Grayson H (2013) Teacher guide: Rapid review of parental engagement and narrowing the gap in attainment for disadvantaged children. NFER and Oxford University Press. Available at: www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/oupp02/oupp02.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
Choudhury T (2018) Metacognition in a diverse nursery school in East London. Impact 8: 72–73.
Dempster K and Robbins J (2022) Using the four pillars of engagement to build effective relationships with parents and carers: Advice for school leaders. Impact 15. Available at: https://my.chartered.college/impact_article/using-the-four-pillars-of-engagement-to-build-effective-relationships-with-parents-and-carers-advice-for-school-leaders/ (accessed 7 December 2022).
Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2021) Parental engagement. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit/parental-engagement (accessed 7 December 2022).
European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2017) Raising the achievement of all learners in inclusive education: Lessons from European policy and practice. Available at: www.european-agency.org/sites/default/files/ra_lessons_from_european_policy_and_practice-web_0.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2018) Supporting inclusive school leadership: Policy review. Available at: www.european-agency.org/sites/default/files/sisl_policy_review.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2020) Inclusive school leadership: A practical guide to developing and reviewing policy frameworks. Available at: www.european-agency.org/sites/default/files/SISL_Policy_Framework.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
Gorard S and See BH (2013) Do parental involvement interventions increase attainment? A review of the evidence. Nuffield Foundation. Available at: www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/Do_parental_involvement_interventions_increase_attainment1.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
Gross J, Noble N and Robinson L (2022) In it for the long haul: Building trusting relationships with parents. Impact 15: 27–30.
Harris A and Goodall J (2007) Engaging parents in raising achievement: Do parents know they matter? Department for Children, Schools and Families. Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6639/1/DCSF-RW004.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
Li E (2022) Developing an inclusive curriculum: What can we learn from teachers’ inclusive pedagogy? Impact 14: 74–75.
Rashid N and Tikly L (2010) Inclusion and diversity in education: Guidelines for inclusion and diversity in schools. British Council. Available at: www.britishcouncil.es/sites/default/files/british-council-guidelines-for-inclusion-and-diversity-in-schools.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
UNESCO (2017) A Guide for Ensuring Inclusion and Equity in Education. Paris: UNESCO.
UNESCO-IBE (2009) Defining an inclusive education agenda: Reflections around the 48th session of the International Conference on Education. Available at: www.ibe.unesco.org/en/document/defining-inclusive-education-agenda-reflections-around-48th-session-international (accessed 7 December 2022).
UNESCO-IBE (2016) Reaching out to all learners: A resource pack for supporting inclusive education. Available at: www.ibe.unesco.org/en/news/reaching-out-all-learners-resource-pack-supporting-inclusion-and-equity-education (accessed 7 December 2022).
Van Poortlviet M, Axford N and Lloyd J (2018) Working with parents to support children’s learning: Guidance report. Education Endowment Foundation. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/ParentalEngagement/EEF_Parental_Engagement_Guidance_Report.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
Welsh Government (2015) FaCE the challenge together: Family and community engagement toolkit for schools in Wales: Main guidance. Available at: https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2018-12/face-the-challenge-together-family-and-community-engagement-toolkit-for-schools-in-wales-main-guidance.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).
Pause and reflect
Having read the following research review, we invite you to consider the following questions:
- In what ways has this reading resonated with your existing knowledge about parental and community engagement?
- In what ways has this reading challenged your thinking about parental and community engagement?
- What are the current challenges when engaging with parents and the community in your current school setting?
- Are there any strategies from the reading that could contribute to overcoming these challenges?