Research and experiences tell us that involved parents make for better students. Studies have shown that the involvement of parents help in producing better students.
The advantages of parents and communities getting involved in education are numerous. For students, it tends to result in higher marks, better academic skills, reduction in school truancy, and makes it much more likely that the child will go on to tertiary education level. For the school, it also has possible benefits, as shown in Henderson and Mapp’s 2002 book titled ‘A New Wave of Evidence’. Henderson and Mapp state that upgraded school facilities, an increase in school leadership and staffing, better programmes for students, and new resources to improve teaching and curricula. But most importantly, getting parents and communities involved makes it possible for them to become agents of change within the education system. Since ‘active’ parents and communities are few and far between, more often the onus lies on the school to persuade parents and communities to get involved.
An essay by Eleanor Lemmer (2007) of the University of South Africa discusses six steps by Joyce Epstein, a professor in sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, which advises schools to take in order to encourage parental and community involvement. The study provides examples of these steps being effectively implemented in five South African schools - Saxonwold Primary and Rosebank Primary in Gauteng, Mbilwi Secondary in Limpopo, Inkomazi Secondary in Mpumalanga, and Bergvliet in the Western Cape.
1. The first step relates to parenting: ‘Schools should assist families with parenting and child-rearing skills, family support, understanding child and adolescent development, and setting home conditions to support learning at each stage and grade level.’ A South African school in which this type of activity is prevalent is Saxonwold Primary. The annual newsletter constantly reinforces the responsibilities of the parents. Parents are reminded that children have to arrive on time, parents are no allowed to leave the child to ‘loiter’ on the pavement, children should be given a healthy breakfast, and that they should come to school with water bottles.
2. The second step is to ensure two-way communication ‘about school programmes and students’ progress’. Saxonwold stresses the importance of parents checking homework and signing homework diaries everyday, thus ensuring this two-way communication. This can be accomplished if each parent can take time to visit the principal of a school personally, or, as in the case of Mbilwi Secondary School, by calling parents at every opportunity. The school contacts parents; to highlight the rules and pass requirements at the beginning of the year, when a learner is seriously misbehaving, when the learner is sick, when the learner receives an award, and when Saturday classes are being held. Considering that the school has doubled in size over the past year, this is an outstanding achievement which requires serious dedication.
3. Encouraging parents to volunteer is difficult, but worthwhile. Lemmer tells us that schools must strive to become places where families and communities feel wanted. Often they are encouraged to help by participating in functions and school-improvement ventures. Saxonwold has formed a ‘Club Family’, which is comprised of those ‘willingly participating’ parents who will (hopefully) always form some part of the parent body. Saxonwold extends invitations to parents so regularly that it is apparent that the parents feel guilty if they don’t attend at least one function a year. Once a parent attends, it is easier to get them to come again, and they gradually become more involved. These functions are held in the evenings and dinner is provided so there is no excuse for absenteeism on the part of the parent.
4. ‘Schools should involve families with their children in learning activities at home, including homework.’ Inkomazi asks parents to come and ‘check’ their child’s work every term so that they are better able to assist them at home. In addition, when sending their students on camps, they ask parents to come and stay with the students and prepare the food. In this way the parents – even those who are illiterate – understand how the students are working, what that work entails, and the challenges that each student faces.
5. Including parents in the school’s decision making is important. Inkomazi includes parents by asking them to attend strategy sessions about how students can be helped to achieve the best possible results. Mbilwi’s school governing body (SGB) calls parents for the budget committee meeting, and parents elect the SGB, ensuring their direct involvement in the school’s governance.
6. Epstein’s final step involves collaboration with the community. For example, Rosebank Primary is very involved with the Rosebank SAPS – they let the police use their school as a venue, and in return the police keep a close eye on the school, even helping out at various school events. Bergvliet mandates that each student must do 10 hours of community service per term. This exposes students to the needs of various communities, and the communities become more aware of and alert to children who are out of school or who are misbehaving.
Remember being given a school newsletter to take home, that ended up squashed at the bottom of your school bag? Schools should be using whatever means to reach out to parents and communities. Bergvliet is very active in this regard – they have a school website and Facebook page that keep parents and the community in touch with what is happening at the school. In addition, they send out SMSes to parents to remind them of important meetings and parent/teacher evenings.
You may think that much of this is common sense but unfortunately, as Banu Sankaran of Mbilwi succinctly writes, ‘In South Africa the school has a bigger role in shaping the youth. When we get cooperation from the parents, it is good. But most of the time we don’t get it.’
In the small selection of schools in this study, the enormous effort that goes into trying to get parents and communities involved is apparent, and shows how hard our schools are willing to work to enhance the education system in South Africa.
- Beatrice Ralfe is corporate social investment practitioner at Tshikululu Social Investments (TSI). This article first appeared on the TSI website. It is republished here with the permission of TSI www.tsi.org.za.