Schools have traditionally been responsible for imparting knowledge and skills necessary for a good education and a prosperous life to children and young people. Not long ago, schools were the primary places where youngsters acquired the knowledge required to succeed in the future. During that era, parents played a crucial role in their children’s overall education, including instilling values, shaping behaviour, promoting health, and teaching various life skills for daily living.
However, this paradigm has shifted. Students today can acquire most of the knowledge and skills that were once exclusively taught in schools through alternative means, such as media and digital technologies. In many countries, “informal learning” outside of traditional school hours has become an integral part of formal education. Students can increasingly earn credits for independently acquiring knowledge and skills recognized by their schools and education authorities.
These emerging opportunities for self-directed learning are redefining the traditional roles parents play in their children’s education. Simultaneously, as children gain the ability to learn at home using digital devices, disparities in learning outcomes may widen between those with access to advanced technology and those without. Research conducted in Australia and Canada, for example, has revealed varying parental approaches to their children’s use of digital media and technologies, influenced by socioeconomic circumstances.
For instance, in Australia, on average one-third of parents permit their children to bring smartphones to bed every night, with this percentage rising to half in lower-income families. Students struggling in school are most likely to take their digital devices to bed with them every night.
The well-being of children, encompassing digital wellness and overall health, has become a crucial aspect of school curricula worldwide. While schools cannot be held responsible for children’s health, aspects such as safety, a sense of belonging, and physical well-being are increasingly integrated into educational plans. Given that parents are the primary educators and guardians of their children’s health and well-being, a new form of collaboration between schools and homes is now imperative.
Research from around the world consistently supports the idea that greater parental involvement in children’s learning and educational activities leads to improved outcomes for children, families, and communities. However, there are varying perspectives on what constitutes beneficial parental involvement in education. Positive outcomes are most evident when teachers and parents establish strong mutual relationships that enable a focus on children’s educational and health needs.
It is essential for parents and teachers to understand the factors influencing students’ learning outcomes at school. Often, there is a tendency to attribute unsatisfactory student achievement solely to school-related factors, such as curriculum or teaching methods. However, empirical research over the past five decades has consistently shown that students’ family backgrounds significantly influence their academic performance. Statistically, family factors, such as parents’ education and occupations, community socioeconomic characteristics, and students’ peer relationships, account for approximately 60% of the variability in students’ test scores in school.
In practical terms, this underscores the vital role of children’s family circumstances in their academic achievements, emphasizing that parents are more influential partners in their children’s education than often recognized. By working together, teachers and parents can explore innovative ways to enhance the positive effects of students’ learning at home, increased engagement in school, and overall well-being, both in and out of school.
To maximize partnerships between parents and schools, three concrete practices have been successful in various education systems:
Shifting from viewing parents as clients to partners: In many countries, school education has become a commodity, with parents acting as consumers in evolving education markets. This perspective has led to parents being seen as clients served by schools, where their demands and complaints drive educational services. Establishing and sustaining productive partnerships within this parent-school dynamic is challenging. Transforming parents into active partners in education requires a fundamental shift in how parents perceive education.
Building trust-based relationships. Mutual trust is the key element of healthy relationships in any community or organisation. Good relationships between school and parents are a necessary condition for productive partnerships between these two. How to build such trust-based relationships? One solution is called ‘Looping’, almost a zero-cost practice yet only rarely found in schools anywhere. Looping is an organisational design in which whole class is taught by the same teacher in two or more sequential years in school. Its effectiveness has boosted trust-based relationships in all Finland’s primary and secondary schools. Moreover, research studies over the years have confirmed the power of Looping to enhance relationships and improve schools. For example, the authors of a recent Brown University study of looping in Tennessee concluded that “Having a repeat teacher improves achievement and decreases absences, truancy, and suspensions. These results are robust to a range of tests for student and teacher sorting. High-achieving students benefit most academically and boys of color benefit most behaviorally.” This kind of arrangement would no doubt also enrich partnerships between teachers and parents.
Building digital wellness for all through teacher-parent partnerships. Parenting has become more complex and demanding due to children’s use of digital media and technologies at home. Recent international studies have shown that parents often seek support from schools to address this issue. Similarly, teachers hope for greater support in helping children develop productive digital habits at home. Recognizing the shared responsibility between families and schools, smart collaboration between parents and teachers is the most effective way to promote children’s digital well-being.
The nature of school education is rapidly changing due to uncertain world. While strengthening partnerships between parents and teachers it is important to remember that schools alone can’t figure out what the future schooling looks like. New kinds of partnerships between parents, schools and the community are needed to make sure all children everywhere have the best possible education they must thrive and prosper in the future.
This post was originally written for the Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed lecture in Abu Dhabi on 21 Sept 2023