Shaping home-school partnerships

In September, Council representatives attended a symposium focusing on the importance of parental engagement in education. Communications officer, Janelle Kennard, reports on what was a fascinating two days.

Engaging parents in their child's schooling and learning is now considered an integral part of school improvement. This was made abundantly clear at the Family-School & Community Partnerships Bureau's National Symposium, held in Melbourne.

The Federal Government's school improvement plan includes "engaging parents in education" as one of its four key areas. The symposium gave Australia's national peak parent bodies the chance to discuss, with experts and parents, what is important in this arena at a time when Federal policy is still being shaped.

Home-school partnerships

Canadian expert Joseph Flessa discussed how students flourish when there is an effective partnership between schools and home with respectful and trusting relationships between staff, families and communities. In schools which are welcoming places for parents, effective at communicating and well connected with other community institutions, students are 10 times more likely to improve in maths and four times more likely to improve in reading than those in schools which are weak on these aspects. Having a genuine partnership between home and school also increases student motivation and participation, and teachers can draw on the relationship as an important resource to enhance learning.

Breaking down barriers

While it is obvious that schools and families are both educating children, they do not necessarily work together. The boundary between home and school can, instead, be a wide expanse. In her inspirational welcome to country to open the symposium, 'Aunty' Diane Kerr spoke of her personal experience of feeling inferior when entering a school as a parent or grandparent.
In this area, we need to change the way that schools think, to assume that parents have good reasons for not coming into schools. Only then we can understand what stops them from coming in and engaging with the school.

Those at the symposium agreed that schools must make a conscious effort to actively invite and welcome parent involvement. They also need to develop programs that encourage, support and enhance the role of parents in their children's learning and provide parents with the knowledge and skills to support student learning at home. Examples include parent workshops, information sessions, or even 'Podcasts' explaining classroom methods (see for example the podcasts available in the 'Learning' section of the Fraser Primary School website).
We heard that schools need to build a foundation of trust and respect, connect parent engagement strategies to learning objectives, and reach out to parents beyond school. The more welcome parents feel in schools, the more likely they will be to engage in their children's education and ensure their success.

Sharing power

Many examples of effective parent engagement given at the symposium involved schools sharing power and decision making with parents. While some parents may need help to acquire the necessary skills to engage in this way, allowing parents to set the agenda and develop the school's parent engagement strategies might be the best way to enhance parent-school partnerships.

Setting policy

There was broad agreement at the symposium that the role of government policy is to move Australian schools on from the current situation, where we have a handful of 'shining examples' of excellent school-parent partnership, to a more institutionalised and reproducible ability to form these partnerships in all schools.

Currently, both Federal and ACT Governments have commissioned studies in this area with a view to forming policies, guidelines and resources to embed parental engagement as a corner stone of school practice. So now is the time for parents to have input into what we want to see. Council here in the ACT, and ACSSO (our national counterpart) federally, are staying closely involved with the process.
Transcripts, videos and resources from the Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau's 2014 National Symposium are available on their website:

Shining examples

Specific programs and practices to help form strong home-school partnerships are many and varied around the world. There are many 'shining examples' to point to.

In Ontario, Canada, each school is required to establish a Parent Involvement Committee. These parent committees provide advice on parent engagement and how to communicate with parents and also develop strategies and initiatives to help the school engage more parents in their children's learning. Grants are available to turn ideas into reality and since 2006, 15,600 projects have been funded totalling $24 million. The projects are tailored to the individual needs and challenges of each school and, according to Professor Joseph Flessa, these concrete, tailored interventions do they make a difference to parent engagement in the schools.

In some parts of the world, home visits are part of a teacher's beginning of the year tasks. This happens in Shanghai and in some parts of the US. At Madison Park Middle School in Arizona, teachers participate in a 'community walk' prior to the school year beginning. Teachers visit the homes of students in the area, let them know about school start times, make sure they have everything they need, and answer any questions that families have. They also leave a door hanger with all of the essential contact information for the school. This personal contact even before school starts has led to improved attendance, a sharp reduction in lateness, and a greater comfort level and feeling of welcome for parents.

In some Victorian Catholic schools, parent Board members are encouraged to 'create the opportunity for deep conversations between parents and educators'. One tool being used for this is regular 'learning walks' where a group of parents walk through school and observe it as it is working on the day. They are then asked: what did you see, what did you feel, what are you wondering?

Many ACT schools are working hard in this area with videos and written resources to help parents understand more about what happens at school and how to help. There are also excellent Kindergarten transition programs in place in many schools where, for example, children attend kindergarten-orientation sessions late in the preschool year while parents attend information sessions covering the kindergarten curriculum, how parents can help, student management and school and local services.

P&Cs have a role to play here too. For parents to truly engage with the school, they need to feel like they are part of a community. P&Cs can help by running community-building events and activities such as such as barbecues, family movie nights, and cultural celebrations. When parents and staff get to know each other in a social setting first, they will feel more comfortable meeting to discuss a student.


This article appeared in ParentACTion, Term 4, 2014. See other past editions of our quarterly magazine.