MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED
Quality education means tapping into the value of parental engagement with schools
Historical reluctance on the part of parents to actively engage with their children’s schooling, needs to be reversed if all learners are to maximise their right to quality education. Parental engagement at schools and within schooling communities should be supported and encouraged, and a Tshwane South district director is leading the way.
Earlier this year, a Mail & Guardian article highlighted the fact that parent involvement is key for the success of matric learners by telling the story of Hilda Kekana, district director of Tshwane South, one of the top-performing districts in South Africa for matric results.
Kekana spoke of how she runs a programme where she meets the Grade 12 learners and their parents, and spells out what is expected of them. She further said: “Some parents are happy to buy school uniforms and say, ‘go to school my child’, but they do not interact with the teachers; they do not even look at the schoolbooks. So, when I talk to them, I tell them ‘Open those books, check the marks’ and if you find that your child scored five out of 50 go to the teacher and ask ‘why is my child getting five? What is the problem?’”
Why do many parents not collaborate and communicate with teachers and schools about their children? Worldwide parents say they find engaging in their children’s education intimidating. This is particularly true for South African parents, many of whom did not receive or complete a high-quality education themselves.
Fifty-five percent of South Africans live in poverty and very challenging circumstances which, combined with the legacy of apartheid racism, often leads to a sense of inferiority and intimidation when dealing with public systems. The mindsets of parents are, however, not always considered when schools think about parents and their role. Discourse about parents in schools is often framed in a narrative of deficiency, with the assumption being that that parents do not want to engage.
In an article exploring the teaching landscape in South Africa, Bongani*, a teacher from rural Eastern Cape is quoted as saying, “In this rural area, there is no parental involvement. We try to involve the parents, but they won’t come. They have this misconception that education starts at school. Even if you ask them to come to school, they say, ‘No, we are busy. Please do the work you are supposed to do.’” The experiences that parents have with schools, which often leave them feeling disempowered and unwelcomed, are not considered.
Prior to 1994, most parents in South Africa were largely not encouraged to be involved in their children’s schooling. In 1996, through the introduction of the South African Schools Act (Act 84 of 1996), parents were purposefully included as key stakeholders in schools. However very little support is given to parents and schools on how to engage meaningfully.
To date, parents’ contribution to school is still largely viewed as parental involvement. Parental involvement typically focuses on school-based or school-related activities, and is often narrowed to homework tutelage, which alienates most parents in South Africa. The inability to “contribute” to their children’s education further disempowers parents and leads to an unequal relationship between schools and parents. Yet, research says supportive interpersonal interactions from parents, not necessarily subject-specific tutelage, improved learner achievement.
To truly tap into the value that parents can add as partners in education we need to start looking at them through an asset-based lens by broadening the understanding of the multiple ways in which parents can contribute, and by ensuring that parents have constructive pathways to engage with schools.
Parent engagement is, ultimately, parents and school staff collaborating and communicating to support and improve the learning, development, and wellbeing of learners. The programme run by Kekana for the parents of matric learners emphasises the importance and value of parents, but also provides them with practical guidance on how to be partners and how to hold the school accountable.
While matric is an important year because it is the final year of assessment for basic education, there are several missed opportunities throughout a learner’s schooling journey where parents can be supported to partner with schools.
If the goal is to see all learners in South Africa fulfil their right to quality education, parental engagement at schools and within schooling communities should be supported and encouraged as follows:
- There must be a shift from viewing the contribution of parents in education from involvement to engagement with schools.
- There must be a clear national agenda for parents. One that makes the most of the potential of parents to be actively engaged in their children’s education from Grade R and onwards to improve outcomes for children.
- Schools must ensure that the school environment and culture is one that is welcoming, practical and informative to parents.
- Schools need to begin to look at parents from an asset lens, looking at parents as partners with whom they can work hand in hand to support and improve the learning, development, and wellbeing of learners.
- Parents need to understand that supportive interpersonal interactions with their children are key in improving learner achievement.
Schools are the experts in teaching and parents are the experts on their own children and – together – teachers and parents can be the strong base that places learners at the top.
If no parent is left behind, no child will be left behind. DM/MC
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