Parents’ engagement in their children’s schooling begins to drop in the early primary years, continues to fall during high school, and doesn’t lift even during the HSC years, a NSW study has found.
The findings from the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) research prompted the centre’s executive director, Jenny Donovan, to urge parents to persist even when their children put them at arm’s length.
“Don’t let your surly teenager fob you off,” she said. “Keep talking, keep asking questions. Don’t let them let you feel they don’t hear you. Schools, make sure your parents understand they are welcome.”
The centre, which is part of the NSW Education Department, surveyed students, teachers and parents about how much support they receive and provide. Parental and teacher involvement is known to improve student engagement.
Students said teacher support dipped in the last years of primary and again in middle high school, before recovering in the HSC years. They believed their parents’ support decreased throughout secondary school.
But parents admitted that their engagement with their kids’ schooling began falling in years three and four and continued to drop for the rest of their schooling, although the decline was not as steep in years 11 and 12.
“It doesn’t even recover that much towards the end of schooling, when parents take time off to look after their kids as they go through their HSC,” Dr Donovan said. “Parents are self-reporting that they are less likely to ask how students are going, or to offer help.”
The primary school finding surprised researchers, as parents usually felt comfortable in that environment.
“It might be a response to parents’ perception about whether their children are grateful for their close attention; it might be a response for a child’s need for more independence,” Dr Donovan said.
The decline at high school level could be due to parents being put off by their kids’ attitudes. “One [possible explanation] is the sense from a parent that a teenager doesn’t want you asking it, that they regard it as an intrusion,” she said.
“The other is possibly that both students and parents feel a bit out of their depth when they are talking about the high school curriculum. They don’t understand what it is that their children are learning.
“It’s a different environment at high school. Parents feel overwhelmed, they are not as certain that they will be welcome there. The opportunities to connect are official and formal.”
The findings came as little surprise to principal of Whalan Public School, Michelle Gallop, whose school was cited as a case study in how to foster student and parent engagement.
She has noticed that when both parents work, they can become less engaged in years four, five and six.
In response, the school began initiatives to encourage the whole family to embrace school. There are free dance lessons before school, activities clubs at lunch and discounts on school excursions in return for good attendance.
“We will give you a dance lesson, we’ll give you coding clubs, footy, but when you are here we have really high expectations for behaviour,” Ms Gallop said.
Ms Gallop understands that some parents had bad experiences of school, so she engages with them as often as possible. There are open classrooms at 8.45am, regular coffee chats, and she makes sure she’s at the gate in the afternoon.
“It’s pivotal to making a difference to students at school,” Ms Gallop said. “Even if we have disengaged parents, we have incentives to encourage kids across the line. If we can get parents as well as the kids, we have hit the jackpot.”