Parental engagement - how about some disengagement?

August 9, 2018

When I told an orthodontist friend of mine that my dentist was absolutely brilliant, she asked me how I knew.  ‘What you mean,’ she said, ‘is that they didn’t hurt you.  You have no idea as to the quality of their dentistry.’  

We often make assessments of expertise based on a personal value judgement that makes no real evaluation of that expertise.  Or as Khaneman (2011) maintains: when we are faced with a difficult question, we answer an easier one.


The danger, of course, lies in the possibility of the expert pandering to our assessment judgements and looking for the good review; the dentist who doesn’t carry out the necessary procedure because it will be painful so performs an alternative pain-free operation thus ensuring a five-star rating.


This is the direction schools have been travelling for some years in relation to parental engagement.


Parents select schools for a variety of reasons but only 19 percent cite good exam results and a good academic reputation as a dominant factor (Hanson and Vignoles, 2010) and this falls even further when parents are from a low socio-economic background (Leroux, 2016).  This is borne out by the barrage of advice given to parents about choosing a school that eschews academic performance and references how the school ‘feels’, the happiness of pupils, cooperative classroom seating arrangements and the personality of the Headteacher (The Guardian, 2014) along with displays, cleanliness, teacher behaviour and reading schemes (Mumsnet, 2018).


Schools, however, are held accountable for pupil outcomes by a demanding statutory assessment system, academy trust boards, governing bodies, Regional School Commissioners and OFSTED.  Successful schools have increasingly to focus on academic outcomes, have high academic expectations and ensure pupils are well-educated if they are to deliver the excellent results that their charges’ futures are largely determined by.  Delivering these outcomes, particularly in areas of high deprivation, is demanding and requires focus, intelligence and expertise.  High expectations of behaviour are essential for good learning yet strict adherence to an effective behaviour policy often does not play well with parents.  Instructional teaching is more effective than exploration models of learning (Andersen and Andersen, 2015) yet can look, dull, authoritarian and ‘Victorian’ (The Guardian, 2014).  Parents are seduced by hi-tech teaching tools, but this is expensive and delivers little in terms of learning, as recognised by Damian Hinds (Telegraph, 2018). Focusing on ensuring pupils are well-educated rather than happy, despite the evidence that well-educated people are happier (Bynner and Eggerton, 2004), can lead to accusations of heartlessness and the ignoring of well-being and mental health issues.


This divergence between what schools are accountable for delivering and what parents believe a school ought to deliver is creating growing distractions for schools that they can ill-afford.  


Schools increasingly pander to parents, communicate relentlessly, offer more and more extra-curricular options (often provided by teachers who should be planning and assessing) allow parents greater influence over the curriculum and allow them to take greater and greater amounts of senior leaders’ time. The return on learning for these distractions is at best minimal and at worst negative.  Parental engagement with their child’s learning is vital but parental involvement with schools is not.  Inviting parent readers to hear children read may seem harmless and an easy win but teaching children to read is a complex paradigm that requires high levels of expertise - without considerable (and expensive) training, parents can undermine early reading instruction (usually through ‘word guessing’).  Schools barely have the resources to train their teachers (and they must train them because the ITT institutions won’t seem to do this), the prospect of training parents as well is not economic.


The ridiculous expectation that schools had a responsibility for ‘community cohesion’ has long gone, but did anyone tell the parents?


The ‘parental engagement’ ogre has been encouraged by numerous governments who decided that although children are the consumers of education (and in capitalist terms the clients), it was parents who voted.  So, it gave parents influence in OFSTED inspections, access to OFSTED feedback websites, complaint processes that schools must follow however egregious the complaint, a conduit to the ESFA for complaints about academies and an expectation that senior leaders will be available at a moment’s notice to deal with their concerns – otherwise watch out for that Google review!


Damien Hinds (2018) has alluded to the prospect that parents directly influence, and in many cases retard children’s educational starting points - a fact that has been known for many years (Hart and Risley, 2003) – and yet it is these ‘stakeholders’ that have been empowered to influence school curricula and approaches.


Poor parenting is a complex social problem that pervades all strata of our class-riven society and one that cannot be addressed by schools.  Schools have neither the resources nor the time to educate parents, and those resources and time must be focused on ensuring their pupils become well-educated and reap the extensive rewards - social, economic and personal – of a top-quality education.  This may alienate parents, but it offers the possibility of their children not being tainted by their behavioural legacy.  Furthermore, in order to deliver these life-changing transformations for pupils, schools require a tight and disciplined academic fovea that avoids distracting sops, concessions and gestures that serve no purpose other than to curry favour.


So, when someone tells you that their children go to a great school ask them how they know. What they almost certainly won’t reply is, ‘it makes my children really clever.’


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