GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Opinion: Helping parents help

Dr Janet Goodall outlines four key engagement tactics at secondary level

Research and experience both tell us that parents’ interactions with schools drop off rapidly once their children advance to secondary schools. This change is often not welcomed by parents, who have described it as having “the safety net” or “security blanket” taken away.

There is an obvious reason for this decline in interaction: young people make their own way to secondary school, meaning that parents are not at the school gate twice a day. This may seem a simple change but it has a large effect because it doesn’t afford staff and parents an informal way of building relationships, which are the basis of any partnership working between families and school staff.

There are more subtle reasons for the change as well.  While many parents find primary schools accessible, secondary schools can be very daunting. They are often further away than the local primary school, they tend to be much larger in size (and therefore more confusing to navigate), and contain many, many more people than the child’s previous school. Security may also be more complex in a secondary school, precisely because of the increased numbers of students, staff and visitors. For these reasons, and many others, parents may feel less able to come to secondary schools than they were to visit their children’s primary schools.

However, coming into school, although often useful, is not the most important part of parents’ engagement with learning; at the secondary level, as with the primary level, the important engagement happens outside the classroom. And although we know that this often tails off as young people grow up, parental engagement is still vital for young peoples’ outcomes, and particularly so for those young people most at risk of not succeeding. School staff need a clear understanding of what parental engagement at secondary school is, and then how to support that engagement.

What does parental engagement in secondary students’ learning look like?

Conversation. Secondary students have been clear in research that they place great value on adults simply asking how things are going – because this signals that the adults care. And research has shown that conversations – about social media, about music, about whatever the young person is interested in – is correlated to young people’s engagement in reading.

Autonomy. It doesn’t look like intrusive help with homework, particularly at secondary level. It’s important that young people not only have the ability to complete their work on their own but also believe they can do it. Again, it has been shown that when parents continually offer help that has not been requested, young people’s self-belief can suffer.
Facilitation. It does look like general support for learning. So rather than offering to help with homework, parents might ask how homework or coursework is going, or if help is needed. They might provide a place for homework, and set household routines that support it – such as quiet times (no TV) or keeping younger siblings occupied.

Appreciation. While it’s important that parents don’t intrude on young people’s work, it’s also very important that parents let young people know that they value that work. Young people have also reported that the fact their parents value education is the reason that they, also, value and engage with their school work. 

What can secondary schools do to support these forms of engagement?

Perhaps the first and most obvious thing to do is to state the fundamental principle for working together with families: that everyone involved wants the best for the young person. This may sound obvious but it’s important to make this clear. As one mother reported during a previous project: “I’m happy to send my daughter here, now that I know that the staff care about her.”

There are many ways of getting this point across – a simple comment from a teacher that shows they know the young person as an individual is often enough to begin the process. It’s also important for school staff to not only understand but acknowledge the part parents still play in the learning of their children in secondary school.  Parents may no longer be helping with subject content and, indeed, secondary students have reported that they don’t want that kind of help from their parents. But parents’ interest in and support for learning are still vital at this stage, and this needs to be understood and valued by staff. It also needs to be reiterated to parents. Anyone who has raised teenagers knows that it can be a difficult process; it’s worth reiterating to parents that their interest in their children’s learning is still important.

Many parents may also feel unable to support learning at this stage because schooling has changed out of all recognition since they were this age. It’s important to let parents know that what is important is not that they can help with the content of the homework, but rather that they let young people know they place value on the work being done and that it’s okay not to know the answer. It may be important to reassure parents that they are not failing their children if they can’t help with the content of what they are learning, as long as they are showing that learning to be valuable to them.

To sum up

While getting parents into school is a worthy aim, it’s not the most important part of parental engagement in learning, particularly at secondary level. What’s really important is that parents take an interest in learning and show young people that the process of learning has value.

About the author

Academic and author Dr Janet Goodall is a consultant with parents’ organisation Connect (formerly SPTC), which offers four professional learning modules on parental engagement and resources for educators on and a Twitter feed @Connect_ScotPL with #engagefamiliesscot. Dr Goodall is currently working on a new book, 100 Tips for Secondary Teachers: Engaging Parents