Engaging with Families

Supporting Schools to raise attainment and close the inequity gap

Printed from : www.engagingwithfamilies.co.uk

Supporting the Home Learning Environment

Parents play a critical role in promoting academic success through parent-school involvement, stimulation of cognitive growth at home, and promotion of values consistent with academic achievement, and this is another area where the gap between the most and least advantaged may be obvious.

Even mealtime conversations about a child’s day at school or a specific activity can have a positive impact on their educational attainment, and regular interactive learning within the home can be both in conjunction with and independent from the formal school system. Children from less advantaged households are less likely to experience a wide range of ‘home learning’ activities than children from more advantaged households (Bradshaw et al 2012).  Therefore efforts to improve effective communication between all parents and school, creating shared goals and strategies with parents to reinforce children’s out-of-school learning can be ways of addressing the attainment gap.

Parental engagement in their children’s learning in the home has a greater effect on their achievement than parental involvement in school-based activities (Goodall 2013; Altschul 2011).  However, maximising children’s learning is best facilitated by parents engaging in learning activities in the home in tandem with similar critical instructions being received at school (Crosnoe 2012).  The likelihood of educational attainment increases when the child perceives continuity of values between school and family (Blanch et al 2013).

School initiated engagement can make up some of the disadvantage faced by children of less engaged parents by facilitating the flow of school-related information (about protocols, practices, norms, expectations) to those parents (Crosnoe 2012).  As long as some of the basic information relating to the child’s educational process reaches the parents, the home-school relationship can be improved (Crosnoe 2012).  To raise achievement, dialogue between parents and their children is extremely important, and this dialogue is best facilitated when the parent is informed about the curriculum, activities, and expectations in the child’s school (Goodall 2013; Goodall and Vorhaus 2011)

Communication between parents and teachers helps teachers to understand their needs, which can be quite varied (Egbert and Salsbury 2009).  Two-directional communication helps to solidify both teachers’ and parents’ understanding of context; this is especially important for teachers and school staff as they need to be sensitive to the various status and family characteristics of their pupils and the pupils’ families (Reschly and Christenson 2012).  The more regular and frequent the communication between schools and families, the more likely it is that parents will be viewed not as a threat but as a willing and capable partners (Reglin et al 2012; Harris and Goodall 2009).

Parental engagement with their children is particularly important at times of transition (Goodall 2013; Harris and Goodall 2009).  Evidence has shown that concerted efforts for parental engagement during periods of transition, especially the transition from primary to secondary school, prevent any gains in achievement prior to a transition from being lost (Harris and Goodall 2009).  With effective partnership working between families and schools, the likelihood of truancy, exclusion, or disengagement is lessened (Harris and Goodall 2009).  

Despite adolescents’ growing need for autonomy, parental engagement in secondary school pupils’ learning remains a strong predictor of academic achievement (Grayson 2013; Patrikakou 2008).  Parents often feel that they are more welcome to engage in their children’s learning during primary school compared to the complexity and size of secondary school (Goodall 2013; DCSF 2008; Harris and Goodall 2008).  Encouraging more parental engagement within home in the form of supporting children’s educational aspirations and goals is important as children mature and become more independent (Goodall 2013; Patall et al 2008).  Help with homework is something many parents feel they cannot assist with once pupils progress in school and their studies become more specialised (different content and methods of teaching) (Goodall 2013).  Lastly, when secondary schools do not maintain the levels of communication and engagement often found in primary schools, parents reported lower levels of trust (Reschly and Christenson 2012).

Parents become involved in schools in different ways – the degree to which families match the culture of the school can go some way to explaining these differences (Goodall 2013; Kim 2009).  The expectations from school, in terms of how parents are expected to engage in learning, tend to embody the skills and resources characteristic of white, middle-class families.  Parents from this group often share the social and cultural capital of (or are socially and culturally similar to) the teachers with whom they interact (Goodall 2013; Kim 2009).  This also means some of the ways that parents engage with their children’s learning, especially when it may refer to different social and cultural norms, may go unnoticed by the school despite the fact that the engagement is still of value to the child’s attainment (Goodall 2013).

Parental engagement with homework can be both positively and negatively associated with achievement (Altschul 2011; Van Voorhis 2011; Xu et al 2009).  The reasons why a parent participates can affect the association, for instance, if it is only to hasten the completion of the task or if it is used as an opportunity to interact and talk with the child (Van Voorhis 2011).  One review found that parental support for children’s autonomy in homework was associated with higher scores, however, their direct involvement with assignments that are not meant to be interactive or collaborative – particularly when the child is struggling – is associated with lower scores (DCSF 2008). 

Building parents’ confidence in supporting children’s learning in the home (Blanch et al 2013; Goodall 2013.  For instance, in a Spanish paired reading intervention study, findings suggested that families successfully following the programme’s recommendations largely because of the confidence promoted by the teachers and schools regarding the family’s ability to support and mediate the pupils’ learning (Blanch et al 2013).

Collaborative working between parents and children that is mediated or facilitated by teachers and schools (Crosnoe 2012; Scanlan 2012).   Part of the Home-School Knowledge Project in the South-west of England devised a method of parents and pupils collaboratively selecting and talking about artefacts in the home to help inspire and improve pupils’ creative writing skills (Scanlon 2012).  This type of partnership working allows parents’ knowledge and experience to become relevant to the educational process, and schools can build on knowledge from the home with the child acting as a key agent of this process (Scanlon 2012).  Similarly, homework designed or sourced by teachers that is interactive and interesting can foster positive communications between home and school (Van Voorhis 2011).

Schools should tailor their school-family practices to the level of school and the pupils’ developmental stages (Reschly and Christenson 2012).  Partnerships for younger students may focus on school readiness, mastery of basic skills, and motivation; partnerships for older pupils may want to focus on facilitating transitions, pupils’ growing need for autonomy, and decision-making (Reschly and Christenson 2012).

Using a range of activities and communication styles can support the home learning environment (Ofsted 2011).  Input directly from parents should be incorporated into setting pupils’ academic targets, and explaining plainly what each academic and subject level meant in practice to parents helped them to visualise where their support could fit (Ofsted 2011).  One primary school had parents come to school for part of an afternoon once a week to learnt the strategies and methods that were being used in school (Ofsted 2011).

For literacy and tutoring interventions, a highly structured format helps family members to feel knowledgeable and able (Blanch et al 2013; Egbert and Salsbury 2009).  A literacy programme in the US focused on involving parents in interactive homework assignments in which they had a small but crucial role.  Feedback suggested that parents were eager to participate because they did not have to invent new activities but simply share their lives, interests, and valueswith their children (Egbert and Salsbury 2009).  Another study found that practical, easy-to-implement ideas with printed and emailed instructions were successful for engaging parents in at-home education (Doyle and Zhang 2011).


One study found that schools with strong family engagement were four times more likely to improve student reading over time, and ten times more likely to improve student learning gains in mathematics (Bryk et al 2010 in Emerson et al 2012).   Another Australian study found that children aged 9-13 whose homes offered a more stimulating learning environment (measured at age 8) had a higher intrinsic motivation for academic studies – suggesting the long-reaching effects of effective home learning (Duckworth et al 2009 in Emerson et al 2012).

National Child Development Study data found that parental engagement in children’s education at age 7 could independently predict educational attainment at age 20 (Goodall and Vorhaus 2011).  A meta-analysis of 51 studies shows that initiatives involving parents and children reading together, interactive homework, and regular parent-teacher communication all have a noteworthy relationship with academic outcomes (Jeynes 2010).

A US-based intervention study examined the effectiveness of a parent support reading (PSR) intervention to increase the reading comprehension scores of seventh grade pupils (Reglin et al 2012).  Parents participated in PSR workshops twice a week for weeks or once a week for 24 weeks and were encouraged to help their children with reading homework in the evening.  The PSR activities resulted in a statistically significant increase in the intervention group’s end-of-grade reading comprehension scores

Another intervention study in the US focused on the Teachers Include Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS) interactive mathematics programme (Van Voorhis 2011).  TIPS homework assignments are interactive and include clear objectives for learning, instructions for completion, and explicitly state that pupils are to involve family members.  TIPS is teacher-led and it is incorporated into the overall curriculum, ideally for a minimum of one year (some pupils were enrolled in the programme for two years in this study).  According to family and pupil surveys, being in the TIPS group positively predicted pupil and family attitudes about the math homework experience, and pupils in TIPS had significantly higher standardised mathematics achievement scores than control pupils.  TIPS students and families also reported higher levels of family engagement in maths homework than did control pupils and families (Van Voorhis 2011).

Case Study

The Oceans Mathematics Project aims to help pupils in disadvantaged areas of England to address underachievement in mathematics by changing attitudes and practices of schools, parents, and children specifically through involving their parents in the children’s maths learning process.  Children in Years 1-9 can participate and families are encouraged to have more than one member participate – either both parents, grandparents, or siblings. 

Workshops are run from schools with family members to help teach mathematics learning strategies, how children are being taught mathematics today, and to improve family members’ understanding of mathematics.  These are led by maths teachers, who also make assignments that require family participation are also given, and maths based games are distributed. 

Not every school who has implemented the Oceans Mathematics Project demonstrates statistically significant positive impacts, but two schools who originally implemented the intervention perhaps best demonstrate the impact that is possible.  Before the project, both school had minimal to non-existent parental engagement as judged by Ofsted; however, their latest Ofsted reports praised both schools for their parental engagement efforts.  In terms of improvements in the standards in mathematics, one school increased its number of KS3 pupils achieving level 5 or above by nearly 20% and moved from being in ‘special measures’ (when Ofsted considers that they fail to supply an acceptable level of education) to now being a Maths and Computing Specialist College (Bernie and Lall 2008).


Do we consult all our pupils, parents, and staff about educational needs, plans, and gaps?

Does our school recognise that parents have different needs and different ways of engaging in their children’s education?

Can we think of new interactive homework assignments that emphasise parent-pupil communication mediated by the school?

How can our staff be encouraged to reach out more to families and feel confident in initiating new forms of engagement?

Are there any ways to increase families’ access to educational materials to be used at home?


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