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Parents should go past school gate

Date

Ainslie Macgibbon

Family-school partnership is one of the latest buzzwords in education.

Family ties ... Chris Wyatt, head of Newington College Lindfield K-6, speaks with parents outside the school. The college enables parents to study the same language their children are learning.

Family ties ... Chris Wyatt, head of Newington College Lindfield K-6, speaks with parents outside the school. The college enables parents to study the same language their children are learning. Photo: Mick Tsikas

A familiar script, performed most nights at homes near you, begins ''How was school today?'' The response is often limited to: ''Good'', ''Fine'', ''OK'' or ''Hmpf''.

End of story. But should it be? A prevailing belief among educators today is that schools cannot do it alone. ''Family-school partnership'', ''complementary learning'', ''parental engagement'' and ''parental involvement'' are some of the buzz phrases that now characterise education, school websites and school prospectuses.

Along with the more traditional forms of involving parents at school, such as fund-raising and canteen duty, some schools offer myriad opportunities for getting involved, from serving on well-being and curriculum committees to actually learning with your child.

At the Newington College prep campus, Lindfield, parents have been part of a program in which they can learn the same language their children are learning.

The head of campus, Chris Wyatt, says the French teacher at the school was looking for ways to be more involved with parents at home and was successful in securing a grant that enabled them to run language classes for parents of students in years K-6 before school and around school dropoff times.

The French teacher, Corinne Pixton, says: ''Having parents learn the same language as their children has many benefits, it was very successful and parents loved it … and it was great for them to be in the learner spot again.''

Pixton says it was also an opportunity for parents to become familiar with the technology their children used as part of their learning, technology that was not available during their own schooling.

The program, Parental Polyglots, is run by the Association of Independent Schools NSW to help schools, and parents, promote language learning. Parents with some working knowledge of the language can reinforce at home what is being taught in the classroom.

At one school involved in the program, the principal and his wife enrolled in the course alongside parents.

Once a closed space, many schools now house an area for parents where they can view education resources, talk to other parents or staff, or just have tea or coffee, creating a sense of belonging in the school community.

In the US, ''parent resource centres'' are common within schools, and states such as California mandate a set number of hours a year that parents can take as unpaid leave to participate in activities at their child's school.

Umina Public School, on the NSW central coast, has a community room parents can use during school hours.

The school principal, Lyn Davis, says the community room has ''been in good use'', with kindergarten parents getting to know each other and returning parents catching up. The school is also awaiting the arrival of a new building to hold parent forums and house its School House program. This program enables parents at the school who still have younger children at home to spend time involved in school activities while volunteers mind younger children.

Studies and research concluding that parental engagement has a positive effect on a child's academic (and non-academic) achievements abound, including a number that cite family as more influential than school choice in determining education outcomes.

An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Education Working Paper, Parental Involvement in Selected PISA Countries and Economies, released in 2012, says certain types of involvement are more effective.

The research, based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results and parental surveys (Australia was not one of the surveyed countries), found that reading to children at any age, talking about complex social or political issues, and parents who valued and enjoyed reading themselves all contributed to better scores, increased engagement and motivation at school and more sociable behaviour.

The paper acknowledges that parents can promote their children's educational progress by participating in school-related activities, such as meeting teachers and volunteering in school activities, as this signals to their children that school is important.

But the paper says PISA results show that in practically all countries and economies, parents of low-performing students are more likely to meet teachers and volunteer in extracurricular school activities. This is likely the result of schools waiting until students begin to struggle to meet the parents, and parents waiting until their children are struggling to take an active role in their schooling.

These reactive forms of involvement are probably successful, but would be more successful had they begun before the children started to struggle and if they engaged all parents alike.

A spokeswoman for the Federation of Parents and Citizens' Associations of NSW, Rachael Sowden, says: ''Sometimes schools are scary for parents because it's not their normal realm.''

Sowden suggests establishing a positive relationship, in which a teacher calls to tell a parent something positive their child has done, or a parent makes the effort to compliment a teacher, rather than just ringing up to inform them they've done something wrong, or marching up to the school to complain.

''It's like a bank account; if you keep putting in positives, when you need to make a withdrawal there will still be something left … It's more than making assertions like 'I'm the principal' or 'I'm the parent', it's showing kids a respectful relationship between home and school,'' she says.

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