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Time to get serious about research around parental engagement with schools

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Dr Sarah Christie, a Senior Research and Knowledge Exchange Fellow specialising in Parents and Families, considers the evidence base for the benefits of strong parent-school relationships.

parent and childImagine the situation: schools and parents pulling together in the same direction for the good of the children at the heart of both their worlds. Surely, this could only lead to a profusion of positive outcomes.

Of course.


Well, the true answer could be less clear: ‘possibly….probably…. but we’re not quite sure’.

Here in our research centre, we quite like Bronfenbrenner’s eminent ecological systems framework; we think that the optimum understanding of the lives of the children and families we work with comes only if we consider the full context of the concentric circles of interactions and systems that surround them. It seems intuitive, a ‘no brainer’ if you like, that benefits will ensue should two aspects of the child’s surrounding ‘ecosystem’ be working harmoniously together for the good of the child. In other words if parents and schools are engaging successfully then naturally this should result in manifold positive outcomes for the child in terms of achievement and wellbeing.

The trouble here is that intuition and, certainly ‘no-brains’, makes poor science. OK, so forget intuition and no-brainers. What about the research base in this area?

Huge?  Tick.

Buoyant? Tick.

Bursting with strong evidence? Oh.

A strong argument has been emerging for some time that there is a concerning lack of rigour underpinning much of the research in this area. The proliferation of research and practical wisdom that declare how strong and effective relationships between schools and parents will improve achievement and make our children happier may actually be built on very unsafe foundations. A recent and thorough Nuffield review of parental involvement evaluations in connection with disadvantaged children found that of the 68 studies meeting their inclusion criteria, a meagre 7 studies met or nearly met their standards for being of medium quality. The remaining were considered to be of poor quality. Furthermore, the authors considered that ‘almost all had serious flaws’ that seriously undermined their findings. There are worrying implications for this: at best, money and time carelessly spent and opportunities missed to make positive changes and, at worst, money wasted and children’s potential for wellbeing and achievement negatively affected. Serious concerns. Research in these areas deserves more than poor science and intuition.

How did this happen?

Certainly not as a result of lack of effort and enthusiasm. This area of research and practice is neither new nor niche. The most timid of toe-dips into the national and international ponds of school-parent engagement (AKA ‘relationships’ or ‘involvement’), reveals decades of debate; thousands of well-intentioned research projects; and many localised and fewer large-scale practice models. I suspect, too, that a fair few fortunes have been made on the back of consultancy informed by supposed wisdom. The fly in the ointment, though, is that most of the studies that form the knowledge base fail to adequately account for the multitude of variables that might be at play in children’s wellbeing and achievement and conclusions are drawn on correlational evidence that cannot rightly claim to explicate causation and also fails to elucidate mechanisms that might result in an outcome. There is no easy win here. The challenges of designing and executing strong research in this area are formidable; this area is fraught with issues of human complexity and impracticality. Unsurprisingly, but nevertheless worryingly, most research which is informing subsequent research or which is garnering support and money for implementation and up-scaling is not really of good enough quality for the reasons given above.

So, what now?

Strong, rigorously acquired evidence is the only acceptable starting point when it comes to informing decisions that could changes lives. For this to happen, a change of approach is required by all stakeholders. Governments must have the courage to support research projects that do not fit neatly into terms of office; researchers must be innovative and creative and will need to rise to the challenge of clever research design and execution that can capture the sensitivity of human experience whilst being rigorous enough to allow causation to be established. Funders need to be ready to recognise the cleverly designed proposals when they arrive on their desks yet also prepared to call time on research projects that are poorly managed or executed. Not least, the parents, schools and children at the heart of all this might just need to grit their teeth and have their patience tested for just a little longer whilst the rest of us work to get our part in this right.

So, it really is time now to get some serious science into research on parental engagement with schools. This is a serious business: after all, things don’t get much weightier than children’s educational lives or public spending.

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