Parents: make them ALL allies for school

Image: Kelli McClintock /

Parental engagement is a black box for many teachers. Eszter Salamon, Director of Parents International, thinks that it should not just mean helping children with homework. Rather, parents should celebrate learning and recognise school as a good place for it – and it is the teachers’ responsibility to offer them a seat at the table.

I have yet to meet a parent who does not want the best for their children. This statement is by a recently retired school head. Another expert added that even abusive parents have the same aim; they just may not know what ‘the best’ is or even be aware that they are abusive. All research shows that parents have much more impact on the learning outcomes of their children than the best teacher, and this does not depend on the parents’ level of education.

Janet Goodall, EdD, one of the most important researchers of parental engagement, always emphasises that there is no such thing as hard-to-reach parents, only parents you have not yet been able to engage. What you need to keep in mind is what I started with: all parents want the best for their children. What you as a teacher need to do is to convince them that school is the best thing that can happen to their children.

When I did my initial teacher training, we were introduced to parent-teacher relations by one of our trainers: “Teaching is a tough job, but it would be so much easier if all children were orphans.” A few weeks ago, I found a tweet asking why supporting parenting and parental engagement are not part of initial teacher training programmes. Having some insight into a number of initial training provisions around Europe, I can only hope these topics are not tackled the way I experienced some 30 years ago.

What we all know for a fact is that the majority of teachers struggle with parental engagement and very often don’t feel comfortable letting parents in, but rather keep to their well-established practices of informing parents and keeping them at arm’s length. But we also know from those who decided to invest time and energy into establishing parental engagement and support, that the revenues are enormous. When countries introduced the EACH Charter allowing parents to stay with their children at all times while the latter were treated in a hospital, doctors and nurses were terrified, but soon realised how much easier their work was. The same is true for schools.

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, parents are solely responsible for the education of their children and thus have a duty to participate in school (and children themselves having the right to be involved in decisions, too). So, the starting point for parental engagement is a paraphrase of the child participation principle: Nothing about us or our children without us.

The task of schools, professionals working in them, as well as appointed or elected parent leaders, is to ensure the engagement of all parents: those who feel comfortable with school, those who seem to be very demanding, those who never come if the school invites them and those who don’t even speak the language of instruction. For the majority of parents, an open school / whole-school approach is a good entry point, but we must keep in mind that some of them need more support than others to be truly engaged.

Methodology and inspiring practices are available, and a lot of them will be shared here this month. To make parental engagement a reality, we only need to will it.

Eszter Salamon is the Director of Parents International and a well-known advocate of parental engagement. She has been active in the field of child rights since 1989. Her research and education work focuses on equitable quality education and leadership as well as on parents.