Closing the social class achievement gap is a prominent policy reform issue in the UK as in many other developed countries. Considerable money has been spent on this recently, many strategies/interventions have been suggested and planned, and several research studies have been conducted. There is currently a plethora of local and national initiatives in UK to try and improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged families by changing the aspirations, attitudes and behaviours of children and their parents. Recent studies have shown that these initiatives have been misplaced and based on the wrong assumptions about pupil’s and parents’ low aspirations (Kintrea et al. 2011) and indeed motivation (Schwinger et al. 2009; Bettinger 2010) The challenge is not raising aspirations or improving motivation, rather it is about achieving those aspirations. Recent research by Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that there is good evidence that focusing on parental engagement can help young people from disadvantaged background achieve their aspirations (Menzies 2013).
Research on the impact of parental involvement on children’s school outcomes has produced quite mixed results. Some programmes are found to be effective for younger children, but not for older ones, while others have found quite the reverse (e.g. Williams 2008). Some interventions appear to have an effect on some components of certain ability tests but not on others. There are also studies that suggest that interventions which focused on parenting skills and behaviour alone have little or no impact on children’s school outcomes (e.g. Hartas 2012). One of the main reasons for the mixed results is the inconsistent definitions of ‘parental involvement’ or types of parental involvement (Sénéchal & Young 2008; Jeynes 2012). Parental involvement can mean a wide range of things from parental behaviours, parenting styles, parents’ aspirations to parenting activities such as helping with homework and attending school activities.
A recent and the most comprehensive study to date suggests that parental involvement in their children’s education does have a causal influence on children’s school outcomes (Gorard et al., 2012). Their review considered only studies that met the four criteria of causal evidence (i.e. studies that show or explain associations, sequence and mechanism, and where there are robust interventions). Many of these studies highlighted the important role of parents in children’s education, but none were able to identify the active ingredient for successful programs for different age groups of children.
This new review is therefore not about whether parental involvement programs work (there is strong and consistent evidence that they do), but rather what are the most efficacious programs for different age groups of children, and what are the promoting and inhibiting factors in implementing such programs. The review will also consider all aspects of parental involvement programs including those that are aimed at motivating or enhancing parental engagement, but not parent-initiated involvement. This is because the aim is to identify strategies that schools or government can employ to engage parents in such a way that would make a difference to the outcomes of children from disadvantaged background. For the reasons outlined above, this review will include only those studies where there are evidence of robust evaluations of interventions, for example, randomised controlled trials or quasi-experiments that have pre- and post-test comparisons of outcomes and comparison groups.
The aim of this new review is to evaluate parental involvement interventions that have an impact on the academic achievement of children from pre-school to secondary school (i.e. aged 0-5 to 16). School academic outcomes are defined for present purposes as an individual’s level of success in educational assessments of any kind. A key indicator might be a young child’s school readiness, such as the ability to read or identify letters of the alphabet and count to ten. Another would be the level of qualifications gained by the end of compulsory schooling. Part of the problem at school for some children from disadvantaged backgrounds may be that it is a strange environment, unlike their home – or more so than for many other children. This may then influence their judgements of relevance. Parental engagement and public involvement is therefore not simply another learning partnership; it is an attempt to bring the environments of school and home closer together (from both sides).
The objectives of the new review are to identify and evaluate:
- the most promising early parental involvement intervention or interventions (worldwide) that have an impact on the school outcomes (defined as school readiness) of pre-school children from disadvantaged backgrounds;
- the most promising parental involvement interventions that have an impact on the school outcomes of children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds as they progress through their school life and beyond;
- the most promising methods of enhancing or encouraging such parental involvement/engagement in activities which have a measurable impact on school-age children’s school outcomes.
A second set of objectives are: to
- identify the key elements of these successful interventions;
- identify possible barriers to increasing parental involvement and how they can be overcome. This was an important consideration, highlighted in several of the studies in the linked Joseph Rowntree Foundation review (Hornby and Lafaele 2011).
- set out steps by which these interventions can be engineered into practical cost-efficient applications for policy and practice.
The primary outcome of the review will be a description of a range of interventions for parents with children of different ages, to enhance their involvement in children’s learning. This would entail the design of suitable and cost-effective interventions, in as much detail as the existing evidence allows. This would be what the US Institute of Education Sciences (IES) funds as Goal 2 (developing of interventions). The next step would be to monitor them in operation. This would be equivalent to the IES Goal 3 (efficacy or replication studies and Goal 4 (scaling up and implementation studies). See ies.ed.gov/funding/webinars/previous_webinars.asp.