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It is widely acknowledged that if pupils are to achieve their full potential from schooling they will require the full support of their parents. An attempt to increase parental involvement in education occupies governments, administrators, educators, parents and organisations across the world. It is suggested that parents in addition to promoting their own child's achievements should also become involved and play a broader role in school improvements and the democratisation of school governance. The European Commission supports this in highlighting how the quality of schooling is dependant heavily on the degree of parental participation present (Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003).
The 1997 White Paper, 'Excellence in Schools' (DfEE ,1997) first set out the strategy for securing parental involvement in England. The strategy consisted of three main elements, firstly providing parents with relevant information, secondly allowing them to have a voice and lastly encouraging parents to have partnerships with the school. Furthermore these have been displayed through a wide range of activities such as enhancing parent governor roles to include them in the inspection processes provision of their annual reports, providing home school agreements along with providing parents with increasing amounts of information surrounding the curriculum and on school performance (Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003).
Since 1997 there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of parental involvement. In 2005, the Schools White Paper "Higher Standards, Better Schools for All-More Choice for Parents and Students" published by the Department for Education and Skills (Dfes, 2005) placed emphasis on parental involvement and the role parents had in raising their children's attainment levels. Behind this is the widespread belief that parental engagement has a significant impact on the educational outcomes of young children and that parents themselves have a fundamental part to play in raising these standards (Harris and Goodall, 2007).
In addition this highlights the notion that if parents are engaged in their children's learning, the more likely their child will succeed. This point was repeated in the 'Every Parent Matters' publication (Department for Education and Skills, 2007) which lays emphasis on parental engagement and the role it plays in securing a higher standard of educational performance. Schools are becoming progressively aware of the role parents play in raising standards of achievement, and this could be a result of the emphasis which the The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) now place on parental involvement as part of their inspection process. Since 2009 Ofsted have been looking at the effectiveness of schools engagement with parents. They emphasise the need for schools to build positive relationships with parents, to communicate with them and inform them of their children's progress and provide support to parents on how best to engage with their children's learning within the home. In ensuring these are provided to a high standard the relationship between teachers, parents and children would ensure effective leadership in schools and a higher degree of parental engagement within the home resulting in children having more of a chance in succeeding within the education system.
Furthermore in understanding this notion of parental engagement and the positives it brings to children's education, the means to which parents engage in their children's learning effectively must also be acknowledged, particularly for 'hard to reach parents' (Harris and Goodall, 2007).
In addition, even before policy like this was introduced some parents were actively taking part in their children's learning even in the pre-school stage, from activities in the home which build a foundation of skills, self-concept, attitudes and beliefs to approaching a school to discuss entry requirements, discussions with teachers on their children's progress to assisting with school governance. Activities such as these have been highly regarded in terms of enhancing a child's progress and this has led to widespread attempts to promote parental involvement however views on this are widely debated.
In what follows we will be discussing the parental engagement findings of the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE, 2004) project and relating these findings to other literature within the field, we will then draw upon these two bodies of literature and make suggestions for the Early Years sector. We will use literature from both the UK and USA.
Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE, 2004) was the first key study in the UK to place the effectiveness of Early Years education at its focal point. In Europe this study was the largest of its kind to investigate the effect of pre-school education on children's developmental outcomes at the start of primary school, monitoring the intellectual and social behaviour of 3000 children, their parents and home environments and also the pre-school facilities they attended, In addition the study aimed to look at what constitutes effective practice and achieved this by investigating 12 case studies with positive child outcomes. The study found home environments to have the most impact on child development, five key themes were identified during the study, the quality of verbal interactions between adult and child, the degree of knowledge of the curriculum for staff within settings, adult knowledge of how young children learn and develop, the skills adults possess in helping children resolve conflicts and helping to support parents with home learning environments.
EPPE found verbal interactions between parent and child to be most effective through sustained shared thinking where adult and child work together to solve a problem, then develop and extend this collaboratively. The study found this to be more prevalent in middle class families where sustained shared thinking happened more frequently and parents were more involved with activities both at school as well as in the home, however in settings where children were more socially disadvantaged parents were less likely to encourage sustained shared thinking both within the school and within the home resulting in practitioners being required to encourage and support parents to participate in this more frequently. However, Desforges and Abouchaar (2003) identified that parent child conversations within the home were far more important in terms of raising children's attainment levels than their parents being involved more with the school and activities within it, thus suggesting that regardless of social economic status of parents the schools need to be supporting and encouraging sustained shared thinking and adult-child interactions more within the home environment. This could be delivered through training for parents on what strategies best support children within the home.
In addition the EPPE study found knowledge of early year's workers within settings to be a vital component in the quality of early year's provision. Understanding the curriculum and then being able to implement effective strategies for learning is just as important in the early years as any other stage in education. A study by Harris and Goodall (2006) found that it is often teachers who lack confidence and knowledge when it comes to working with parents, and many do not value the contribution some parents already make in their children's learning. Furthermore, the schools themselves do not collect data on their own interventions as a matter of cause, not even in relation to the outcomes of academic achievement, this in itself is problematic. To achieve an increase in the degree of knowledge early years workers possess then interventions, particularly surrounding parental engagement, within schools need to be monitored. If an intervention proves successful then knowledge of this could be rolled down to practitioners in order for them to gain confidence to support parents to engage with their children.
Nevertheless it is important to understand how children learn in the first place, much debate has centred on pre-school education and whether is should be delivered formally or informally, frequently summarised by the degree to which the curriculum is or is not play based. EPPE found most settings used play as the foundation for extended learning and both adult and child initiated play resulted in sustained shared thinking which through using open ended questioning has proved to increase children's cognitive ability and with continued use could benefit children's intellectual and social development. Furthermore Desforges and Abouchaars study reinforces this notion surrounding adult child interactions so indicating that parents understanding the benefits of play based learning within the home and interacting though play could have increased benefits to children's development both intellectually and socially. This however is heavily dependant on the information being received, if the practitioner is highly qualified within the area of parental engagement then this could prove successful, however for lower qualified staff knowledge could be weak. This suggests that all staff may need to develop their professional development in order to converse and advise parents confidently.
In all of the findings from the EPPE study the home learning environment is a fundamental part of children's learning, the more pro active settings shared information with parents and staff and also allowed parents to be involved in making decisions surrounding their children's learning. The findings support parental engagement and the benefits intellectually for a child, particularly when their parents were informed of the learning aims which they actively acknowledged and then extended into the home environment, however in disadvantaged areas staff within settings were required to be more proactive with parents and taking more of a supportive influencing role. This suggests there is a socio economic divide between class of parents and how actively involved they are in their children's learning. A further study by Harris and Goodall (2007) looked at the barriers to engagement for parents and showed that terminology of the word 'engaging' was misunderstood. They found a difference between involving the parents in schooling and engaging them in learning. As with Desforges and Abouchaars theory, parents could be actively involved with activities within the school grounds and this alone holds a community social function however it is what they do at home with their children that has the most benefit. Harris and Goodall also found that parental involvement and the level of impact are a result of parent aspirations and values of education, displayed through an enthusiastic and positive approach to parenting; however the varying levels of involvement are heavily dependant on their circumstance.
Furthermore, Williams et at (2002) carried out research of parents views surrounding their degree of involvement in their children's education in England, results showed that many parents felt time was a contributing factor to the degree in which they were involved in their children's learning and would like to contribute more if they could however the findings also show a difference in degree of involvement across different groups. Men were less likely to help at home with homework etc due to work commitments thus meaning maternal education is significantly important as responsibility lay heavily on the mother. In addition the social class of households also showed significance. For parents in households dependant on benefits or whose main income came from manual or unskilled jobs felt less involved with their children's learning within the home. Findings of this kind underpin initiatives such as the Surestart Programmes which focus on improving outcomes and educational achievements of children from lower socio-economic backgrounds and their families. However results from the EPPE project oppose this and support the notion of what parents do in the home being far more important than who they are in terms of social economic status or academic achievements, for example young mothers with fewer qualifications can progress their child's learning and provide them with a better start at school if they fully engage with them at home and foster their learning. This would suggest important implications for Surestart programmes which mainly focus on large volumes of social exclusion.
Moreover, Harris and Goodall (2007) in addition to socio economic status found varying other factors which prevented parents engaging with their children such as ethnic background, and as this is heavily linked to socio economic status it is important to consider that if there is a difference in parental involvement across different ethnic groups, then this may actually be due to socio economic status and not necessarily the ethnicity itself, however a study by Yan (1999) found an even level of parental involvement between successful Afro-Americans and successful Euro- Americans and a considerably higher degree than that of unsuccessful Afro-Americans. Furthermore when researching Asian groups their success was a result of their own personal drive and they viewed parental involvement as a negative impact, however the general findings showed a positive impact of parental involvement across all ethnic groups which implies that regardless of ethnic group it is the involvement parents have in their children's education which matters the most, as identified by Desforges and Abouchaars and the EPPE study. Suggestions could be made in order to support hard to reach parents or parents from different ethnic backgrounds such as ensuring documents are translatable or schools researching what parents want. For example a parent who works long hours in an office may want to be contacted by email or parents in touch with social media may want to be informed through Facebook or Twitter.
Although there are many factors which prevent parents being involved in their children's learning, many of these cannot be changed, however support can be offered in order to attempt to engage parents in their children's learning.
Harris & Goodall (2009) in their 'Helping families support their children's success at school' study identified principles of good practice that support low income families to raise their children's achievement, they identified a need for early intervention which provided support to parents by educating them in literacy and numeracy in order to assist their children's learning within the home thus creating a stronger home school link, a concept which is supported by the EPPE study as well as the study by Goodall and Harris (2007) and is delivered through training opportunities within Surestart centres which provide help and advice on training and employment.
In addition, Save the Children (Prevention Action 2010, online) also suggested the need for services which target children's individual needs and for local authorities to deliver family based support which encompasses social services, education and health. As a result Save the Children have introduced the Families and Schools together (FAST) programme which aims to break the cycle of disadvantage and enable disadvantaged children to succeed. To date it has shown to be successful with teachers reporting a 10% increase in children's reading, writing and mathematics skills. Furthermore, by intervening at the correct transitional stages in a child's learning whilst supporting parents and teachers could see significant reductions in disengagement of children or even truancy and exclusion. In order to support this, parents should be offered specific parenting training to enable them to tailor the knowledge they have acquired in order to support their child's individual needs.
In conclusion, this essay has focussed on literature surrounding parental engagement, related these to the findings of the EPPE project and utilised these two bodies of literature to make suggestions for the Early Years sector. Having discussed literature from Harris and Goodall and Desforges and Abouchaar, all support the findings of the EPPE study which highlights the importance of parental engagement on children's learning and place emphasis on the home environment as a vital learning space. However with parental engagement as a whole being a good thing Harris and Goodall identified barriers to engagement faced by some parents such as socio economic status and maternal education, a view which was opposed by Williams et at and Yan who studied the degree of parental engagement across different ethnic origins, and found that parental engagement has positive effects on children's academic achievement even when other factors such as maternal education, social class or ethnic origin are taken into consideration.
In attempts to enhance parental involvement and increase levels of social capital through initiatives such as the FAST programme and Surestart, it is evident that some families labelled 'hard to reach' are becoming engaged however it is almost impossible to say if this has an impact on children's achievement as the evidence is weak and the challenge for interventions is multidimensional. The barriers Harris and Goodall identified would all need an individual response within a whole set approach in order to be successful, so incorporating not just parents but families, schools and communities. In doing so schools could be offered bonuses upon proven success of delivered goals as an incentive to deliver.
Nevertheless the quality of the research in the field of parental engagement along with potential initiatives is relatively poor. EPPE identified many schools do not collect data on the success of their interventions surrounding parental involvement as a matter of cause so knowledge of what has been achieved and what needs to be achieved is lacking. Despite the poor quality of research in this field and the lack of evaluations of interventions there is a clear message of a commitment and readiness to sustain improvement, however schools need to place parental engagement at the centre of everything they do, as it is the most powerful tool in ensuring children succeed within our education system.