An Interview with Carol Vincent: Parental Involvement in Education

Jan 25, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Carol, first of all, what is your exact title and where exactly do you work and what do you teach ?

I am a Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, UK. I teach education policy to Masters students (the IoE is mainly a post graduate institution), and I supervise doctoral students, frequently on topics involving parents and families.

The Institute of Education is an autonomous graduate school of education within the University of London. During the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, the IOE was judged to be the best Higher Education Institute in the country for education research. (www.ioe.ac.uk)

2)      You are speaking on parental responsibilities in education for your Inaugural Professorial Lecture. How did you first get involved in this topic?

I was an elementary teacher in a school in a deprived part of London, where there were very few opportunities for parents to be in dialogue with school staff. I was lucky enough to get a grant for doctoral research to explore in more detail the relation between parents and teachers. That piece of work focused on the narrow boundaries of ‘appropriate’ parental involvement as defined by teachers.

I have also written about the way in which parenting (especially mothering) responsibilities in general have increased markedly, to encompass responsibility for all aspects of a child’s physical, moral, emotional, social, cultural and educational development. ‘Intensive’ mothering as Sharon Hays calls it.

3)      I am dating myself here, but parental involvement certainly has changed, since say the 1950’s and 1960’s. Are there any researchers who have studied this phenomenon?

In terms of specific changes since the 1950s and 60s, I can’t think of any longitudinal studies, but the differences then and now are certainly something researchers note. A few schools in England used to have white lines in the playground, marked ‘no parents past this point’. You wouldn’t find this now! In terms of researchers who write about home school relationships in the UK, fellow sociologists would include Diane Reay of Cambridge University, and Gill Crozier of Roehampton University.

4)      Now, how should teachers be communicating their expectations to parents or should it be the principals or educational leaders or headmasters?

I think the question reveals a further difficulty. Schools do need to clearly communicate their expectations to parents, and this should be done at all levels of the institution, although in primary schools here, it is class teachers who are best placed for individual parent-teacher conversations. However, I think if all the school does is communicate its expectations, it is going to lose some parents, who may feel judged or unable to maintain the momentum the school demands. I believe it’s the responsibility of the school to offer parents a more dialogic relationship, where discussion and debate are possible.

5)      What is Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skill’s (Ofsted) role in this, area, if any?

I think it has to be a limited one. Ofsted does include a parents’ questionnaire when it makes inspection visits to schools, which is good, as far as it goes. The inspectors will comment on their perceptions of home-school relations in their reports. I think it is difficult for inspectors to make an in-depth judgment on that aspect of school life when it is is just one amongst many features in which they are interested. One of Ofsted’s latest initiatives is to put their questionnaire on-line and allow parents to complete it at any time, and then allow other current and prospective parents to see an overview of the results. A sort of Schools’ TripAdviser! I am not convinced. Schools are more complicated institutions than hotels!

6)      Obviously, there are different social classes in Britain,as well as around the world. How should a teacher approach parents from markedly different social classes?

People do make very quick judgments about the social class of the person to whom they are talking – even if they wouldn’t express it quite that crudely. However, I don’t think teachers should have different approaches for middle class parents or working class parents! I think it’s about avoiding deficit views of parents as uncaring, uninterested. My research over years has not found parents who are not interested in their children’s progress (they are a tiny minority of the population), I have found parents who have difficulty in showing their interest in ways in which the teachers recognize.  The ideal aim would be for teachers to build a positive social relationship with all the parents with whom they have contact, and appreciate that not all parents will, all of the time, be able to comply with more specific expectations such as getting involved with fundraising or even overseeing homework. But I suspect many more would if they feel part of the school, comfortable there and welcomed.  However, building a closer relationship involves longer, more frequent opportunities for contact, which, of course, has resource implications.

7)      Further, there are different racial and ethnic groups in Britain and other parts of the world. What do teachers need to be sensitive to?

I think the response to the last question is relevant. But with the additional need to be sensitive to different cultural and religious ways of understanding and seeing the world.  This is where the state school needs to be clear of its values, around sensitive issues like sex education. I would again advocate dialogue and debate but a consensus that pleases everybody cannot always be reached, and a school principal and local education managers need to be clear of their priorities for publicly funded schools.

In London where I work and research, we have relatively high numbers of migrant families arriving from other countries. Some schools here have developed great expertise and experience in settling newly arrived children and welcoming their parents. I did some research a few years back, and one of the things migrant families struggled with most was that the educations system was so different from that in their country of origin. The provision of (translated) basic information about the curriculum and organisation of the school was really desired. Unfortunately, recent cuts to the education budget have made it harder for schools to employ translators, and local authorities which, once would have helped with translating and interpreting services are also under financial pressure.

Working with colleagues, I have just finished a project on the educational strategies of the Black middle classes, looking at the approaches to education taken by Caribbean heritage parents in professional jobs. One of the most striking findings was the extent to which these parents felt mis-recognized, that they had to work hard in their relations with schools and teachers to resist racist stereotypes of Black parents as uninterested, unknowing and potentially aggressive. They mobilized their cultural and social resources to demonstrate to teachers their respectability, their knowledge, their interest and concern. They were also alert to what they perceived as the risk of entrenched low teacher expectations of Black children, boys especially.

8)    What constitutes good parental behavior in relation to schools?

I think a more useful question would be ‘what constitutes good school behaviour in relation to parents’!

I think most teachers would be happy with a parent who acts as a supporter/learner – acting as an audience (for school plays and so on), attending school events and learning school approved methods of helping their children with homework. This is quite a passive role, and one that many parents will not or cannot take up. A parental involvement policy I would suggest needs to include different ways of reaching out to parents, but should be based on a positive view of the children’s parents. It sounds obvious – but deficit understandings of parents and their capacities have not gone away!

9)   Now, how can interested scholars and researchers get a copy of your lecture or learn further?

I am not promoting a particular book. I have written about these issues in 1996, Parents and Teachers: Power and Participation. London; Falmer Press.

2000, Including Parents? Citizenship, Education and Parental Agency (Buckingham, Open University Press)

With Stephen Ball, I have written about families and social class in Childcare, Choice and Class Practices (2006, RoutledgeFalmer).

The printed version of my Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Parenting: Responsibilities, risks and respect, US$9.95 is available to pre- order in North America from Stylus Publishing www.styluspub.com and can also be pre-ordered from all online book retailers such as Amazon www.amazon.com

In the UK it can be purchased from John Smith’s Education Bookshop www.ioe.johnsmith.co.uk and all good bookshops and online retailers.

With colleagues David Gillborn, Nicola Rollock and Stephen Ball, I am currently writing a book about the educational strategies of the Black middle classes.

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