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Unheard voices: what migrant parents from the EU say about communication with their children’s schools

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In the shadow of one of the most hotly debated political issues of recent times and as we step with trepidation into a post-EU era, Sarah Christie and Agnes Szorenyi of the University’s Research Centre for Children Families and Communities give a voice to families of the ‘EU generation’: those who recently migrated to Kent from Eastern and Central Europe. Here, we move beyond the culture of fear in the classroom to hear from those parents who feel thwarted in their attempts to support their children in the UK education system.

Messy communicationBehind the political soundbites in the aftermath of the historic ‘Leave’ referendum, the majority of the diverse families that characterise contemporary Britain are living unremarkable lives: striving for the opportunities for themselves and their children and wanting to take their places in their communities. For many, the locus of this effort is their children’s schools, a place where, theoretically at least, children’s lives converge to access equal opportunities for learning and families’ hopes for the future can materialise.

Children achieve more when relationships between their parents and their school are strong.

But what, exactly, defines an effective relationship between schools and parents? Research tells us that it can take many forms but that trust between the two parties is key. Is it possible, though, for trust to develop if parents are not confident in the language spoken by the school staff, have no experience of the school system and very good reasons to feel that their child is ‘different’ to other children in his or her class? Additionally, if relationships are situated in a wider, hostile social environment where the parents have good reason to suspect that they are disliked and disrespected, then the potential for mutual trust must surely be compromised.

Migrant parents are frustrated and disempowered

We spoke at length to 10 parents who had migrated to East Kent and Medway from various parts of Eastern and Central Europe within the past 5 years to find out exactly what they thought about the relationship between themselves and their children’s schools. We asked for their positive and negative experiences, and also encouraged them to tell us about strategies they have used or would like to employ to facilitate the relationship. Our findings raise serious concerns: within our small sample, it appears that faltering systems for exchange of information between the two parties are leaving many parents dissatisfied, frustrated and disempowered. What’s more, communication channels that are this unsatisfactory present serious implications for children’s attainment and school performance. It’s a lose-lose scenario which should be win-win.

One way traffic

The parents that we spoke to considered that they were generally the ones carrying the baton for communication. Other than contact about lost property or behaviour problems, and outside of infrequent parent consultation meetings, parents considered that contact about their children’s school performance was always initiated by them and that their approach was not always favourably received.  Any variation seemed to depend on the personal approach of the individual school staff; some were described as helpful and approachable whilst, worryingly, the response of others was interpreted as discriminatory. This was a cause for consternation for the parents we spoke to whose experiences in their home countries had led to them to expect more open and accessible dialogues about school performance. What is clear is that the parents’ expectations differed from their perceived reality and this difference causes problems.

As much as we found commonalities in the parents’ accounts, we also found differences; we looked carefully at the interview responses to try to understand why this might be the case. It seemed that parents who reported more satisfaction regarding their relationship with their children’s schools employed a variety of ‘tools’ in order to enable this: some were articulate and had strong command of English and used this to engage in meaningful dialogues whilst others utilised assertion and uninhibited persistence. Where does this leave those with poorer language skills and less confidence? From our data, these parents were the ones who found it most difficult to engage effectively with their children’s schools. These are the ones who were therefore effectively marginalised by a system in which they and their family might already be disadvantaged.

Finding hope in conversation and cooperation

It might all seem rather gloomy but, in fact, our interviews were underpinned with hope for positive change and the parents we spoke to were full of ideas on how this could be achieved. Essentially, these boiled down to mutual efforts to find and take opportunities to increase awareness and understanding in both parties through conversation and cooperative endeavours. Support and funding is needed for activities such as the innovative United Mothers project operating right on our doorstep here in East Kent. Responsibility to make positive change also falls to the education system and those operating within it. While meeting the broader needs of culturally diverse children and families and capitalising on the opportunities that the diversity presents is neither new nor outmoded as an academic theme, corresponding widespread practice lags somewhere behind. For the children and families of the ‘EU migrant generation’, and the other diverse many that have joined and will continue to join our schools and our societies, it is time to make sure that systems and practice enable the equal opportunities we know to be right and fair.

Find out more:

The full research paper upon which this blog was based was published in 2015 in the International Journal about Parents in Education and is available in full text here.


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