Last week, The Fair Education Alliance launched its 2015 report on ‘closing the gap’ in UK education, and a focus on parental engagement was one of the top recommendations for improvement. However, Sir Michael Wilshaw, caused controversy by suggesting that the solution might involve Heads fining parents.
Whilst parental involvement has a larger impact on outcomes than school quality (Desforges, 2003) and accounts for 20% of the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers (Achievement for All Programme, 2013) there are three key questions we should ask before deciding to implement Wilshaw’s proposed punitive approach
1. How would it work?
Headteachers would be granted the power to fine parents, but how would they enforce the fines and how would we hold them to account and ensure the system operates fairly?
Furthermore, how the approach was implemented would have to depend on the intended objectives: would it be about ensuring attendance at school events or ensuring parent’s read with their children at home? Supporters of a fining system may argue that we wish to enforce both, but only the former is really monitorable and as ‘parental involvement’ is often defined as ‘good at home parenting’ (Desforges, 2003), any approach which focus solely on ‘in school’ behaviour is not sufficient. It is also worth bearing in mind that understandings of ‘good parenting’ are subjective and potentially culturally specific.
2. Would it work?
Fining parents for a lack of engagement is effectively using punishment to deter a perceived ‘crime’. Yet punitive systems are not simple deterrent mechanisms (Onwudiwe et al., 2004).
Research shows that paying a fine for an indiscretion, such as lateness, creates a feeling of paying away guilt. This can relieve feelings of guilt and shame which are otherwise powerful social deterrents to unacceptable behavior. This can have the perverse effect of actually increasing the undesirable behaviour (Gneezy & Rusticini, 2000). Most teachers know that a positive rewarding approach creates better behaviour and engagement in pupils than a negative system of punishment. Why would we assume we can use fines to engage parents in education when we know you can’t use detention to engage children in learning?
3. Is it the only way?
Sir Michael Wilshaw argues that as some parents don’t care, fining is the only way to ensure engagement. Professor Sonia Blandford, CEO of Achievement for All, disagrees; “100% of parents care but some don’t know how to care”. Work commitments, negative experiences of education and language difficulties are just a few of the possible barriers to parental engagement none of which would be solved, and many of which would be exacerbated, by paying a fine. As Blandford argues, if a parent doesn’t engage it is more likely to be because they can’t than because they won’t and fining them is unlikely to change that.
Given this, Blandford suggests a collaborative approach to the issue, “treat every parent as a valued individual”, “break down the engagement barriers” and “take a whole school approach” to engaging with those ‘hard to reach’ parents.
The Achievement for All programme approaches parental engagement as a partnership, and aims to increase parental involvement in education by supporting parents, school leadership and teachers through ‘structured conversations’. This collaborative approach has been shown to improve outcomes of the lowest 20% of pupils in reading, writing and maths compared with national data for all pupils.
However, others counter that the evidence on family interventions is fragmented and that we are a long way from being able deliver such programmes to every disengaged parent in the country. In a more autonomous system, the question also remains how such programmes can be prioritised and implemented given time and cost constraints.