Parents at heart of new three Rs in education
Building stronger relationships between school and home may include national guidance on homework. By Katherine Donnelly
Get ready for the new three Rs in education. The curriculum looks after the traditional trio of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, but less attention is paid to what findings from new Irish research is shouting out: Relationships, relationships, relationships.
The relationships in question are those between schools and parents, an interface that has not been accorded the same importance as what goes on in the classroom.
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While the child-teacher relationship is at the heart of primary education, there is an increasing focus among educationalists on how schools and parents can work together in the interests of optimising the child's experience.
It is the subject of a new study, 'Parental Involvement, Engagement and Partnership in their Children's Education during the Primary School Years', led by Dr Joan Kiely, Senior Lecturer and Head of Early Childhood Education at Marino Institute of Education (MIE.)
Homework is often the link between parents and school but it can also be the most contentious space in these relationships, so it came up for particular scrutiny. The other key areas explored were the learning environment in the home and the general state of relations between parents and school.
The report was commissioned by the National Parents' Council-Primary (NPC-P) and the findings were outlined at the council's annual conference last weekend.
It is significant for two reasons. One, because it is the first such research in Ireland. Secondly, it was funded by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment(NCCA) whose deputy chief executive, Arlene Forster, says it will feed directly in the NCCA's current review and redevelopment of the primary curriculum, the first in 20 years.
So, what is meant by parental involvement? Many might see it as being a member of the board of management, but it can mean anything from getting a child to school on time, to helping with homework, to engaging with school-based activities.
Dr Leah O'Toole, one of the co-authors of the report, also pointed to the increasing focus on what happens outside of school to support children's learning and the role of parents as 'primary educator'.
The home learning environment covers anything that impacts on the skills and dispositions that children bring to school. It includes the expectations set and access to books and technology - with differences between eg, using the internet for learning and a having a television in the bedroom.
Home learning can include developing children's maths skills by teaching them how to read a clock, building language proficiency through conversations and playing together or encouraging health and well-being through outdoor activities.
As well as looking at international research, the MIE team engaged directly with schools and parents and some social class differences came through.
Less advantaged parents tended to allow more screen time, while more privileged parents were more likely to read with their children and to limit screen time. Better-off families had money to access add-ons such as holidays and cultural activities, but these were also the parents for whom lack of time was the biggest barrier to spending time with their children.
Children from less advantaged families benefited from unstructured free play, arguably, said Dr O'Toole, as beneficial for development as structured activities provided by more advantaged parents.
But a key finding was that less advantaged parents underestimated the significant positive influence they have on their children's learning and did not give themselves credit for educational activities in the ways that parents who are socially and economically advantaged did.
As a result of that lack of confidence, less advantaged parents were more likely to want the school to do more for their child directly.
The report moves on to the 'three Rs' of parental involvement, and the first point made is that not all parents are the same, and that schools have to build positive relationships based on individual needs.
According to the study , "some parents could be intimidated by teachers and needed proactive invitations to enter the life of the school. Other parents were exceptionally busy and were under huge pressure and constant invitations were experienced as a burden and caused anxiety".
According to Dr O'Toole, factors that schools need to take on board include cultural diversity and how parents' own educational experiences influence their relations with their child's school.
As in all matters relating to school life, the role of the principal is crucial. The principal who is out greeting parents in the morning, is setting up the foundations for a relationship that will deal with potential conflict down the road
While encouraging parental involvement is one thing, the flip side of that is deciding appropriate boundaries between parents and schools, something that emerged as a thorny issue. While some teachers were very comfortable with a strong culture of parental involvement, others were intimidated by it.
Relationships between parents also threw up a talking point.
The research team documented a strong split between parents with the time and capacity to be involved with school and those who didn't, such as working parents and parents with multiple caring responsibilities.
It seems that the latter can feel they were being judged and excluded, causing certain distress. It makes some parents even less likely to become involved.
Dr Kiely talked the NPC-P conference through the findings on homework. The MIE team had found a diversity of views among parents, with some finding homework stressful but others seeing it as an opportunity to find out what is happening in school.
Their report makes the point that, "If one of the key functions of homework is to involve parents in their children's learning, the fact that homework feels mostly stressful to parents does not warrant positive involvement in learning and may therefore not function as the best tool for parental involvement in children's education".
Among five schools involved in the research, some innovative approaches included homework set at the beginning of the week and the child deciding when to fit in in around other activities, project-based homework, differentiated homework and even allowing children to apply to get out of homework. Principals in two of the five schools were against all forms of homework, although their teachers didn't necessarily agree.
In a two-week experiment, researchers asked parents to get involved in a playful approach to help their child build oral language skills through activities, such as reading and discussing two books with their child, or asking the child to interview someone they know, such as a grandmother. Children loved the interactive approach, but according to Dr Kiely, "parents were exhausted".
The report makes a raft of recommendations around homework and stresses the importance of choice: "Children need to feel in control and to feel motivated. Having a choice in relation to the when, where and what of homework facilitates this", says Dr Kiely.
As well as more engagement between parents and teachers on the matter, the MIE team recommends national guidance in relation to time to be spent on it, content and methods that suit children.