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Parents as education partners

COVID-19, and the sudden shift to remote learning, has caused significant disruptions for schools, students and families – with students increasingly reliant on parents and carers to guide their learning. But amidst the disruption, and the challenges created, there is an opportunity for teachers and parents to work together to provide a learning environment that leads to better outcomes for students.

Although parental engagement has long been an explicit policy priority for Australian education systems, prior to the pandemic it was often limited to report cards and parent teacher nights. But with remote learning the norm rather than the exception for so many, the status quo has changed, and we have the potential to create more proactive and productive partnerships in a number of important ways:

 When students moved from their school desks to their bedrooms or their dining room tables, parents gained a greater insight into the curriculum, as well as their child's learning needs and goals. Making education more visible to parents allows families to create learning moments outside the classroom, and provide targeted support to their children. A shared understanding of the goals of the curriculum and classroom also allows for more productive conversations between parents and teachers.

Communication is a two-way street. Remote learning has meant that teachers and parents have been in more frequent contact, allowing them to build greater trust and rapport. Teachers report reaching out to parents more often, and that their conversations are more casual, open and transparent. One principal reported higher participation in parent teacher interviews, particularly for parents who had not previously attended. The school believed that putting these sessions online made it easier for parents to participate.

Students, particularly younger children who need frequent adult support, have relied on their parents to facilitate their learning during lockdown. To aid parents, schools and other institutions provided additional materials to help them scaffold their child's learning. Sharing resources and knowledge appear to have helped parents implement more effective teaching strategies at home and improve their relationship with schools and teachers.

Where to from here?

COVID-19 has impacted all Australian students in some way, and exacerbated existing gaps in students’ access to resources and supports. But this latest period of continued adaption has also created the impetus for parents to partner with teachers and engage more directly in their child’s learning. However, not all parents have been able to do so, and system level support is required to nurture meaningful and sustained partnerships across the board.

Engage with all parents

The time and resources a parent can dedicate to their child's education will vary by family and circumstances, but all parents can help their child progress. A meta-analysis of 51 studies of parental involvement programs found that, in general, they were successful in raising student achievement – irrespective of the student’s age, family background or parent characteristics. Programs were most effective when they encouraged parents to take an interest in their child’s learning, ask questions and engage with teachers.  

For these benefits to be inclusive of all students, systems and schools must be responsive to the needs of parents. One trial found that texting parents about their child’s homework and upcoming assessments significantly improved students’ performance in mathematics to the equivalent of one additional month in the classroom, demonstrating that even small interactions with parents can have significant effects on student learning. 

Systems need to support schools in implementing these programs and provide tools to help teachers engage with parents. For example, schools should use multiple modes of communication, allowing parents to participate via video conferencing or phone if they prefer. Communications and materials should also be accessible and available in multiple languages. 

Make time for collaboration

Teachers need time to collaborate and build meaningful relationships with parents. In a 2020 survey, some teachers reported working up to 20 additional hours a week during periods of remote learning. While this is of course not entirely due to an increase in parent communication, it does highlight that teachers are already under strain. School systems should support teachers by allocating time specifically for parent collaboration and embedding it within their day-to-day workload.

While this plan may appear ambitious, it is certainly not unachievable. One study found that teachers could gain an additional three periods a week if timetables were adjusted so that less time was spent on administrative activities. Reducing teachers’ administrative load could provide them with a few additional hours each week to work with parents to achieve the best outcomes for students.

Teachers and parents working in partnership promotes positive outcomes for students. Teachers are experts in teaching and the curriculum, and parents are experts in their children, and able to provide individualised support. Together, they can provide a child with a rich and holistic learning environment. But for this to be achieved, parent partnerships need to be valued and embedded into school classrooms and homes.