Parental and community involvement in schools: Opportunities and challenges for school change
Paper prepared for the International Symposium on Creation of Schools for the 21st Century, Tokyo, Japan, 12 March 2002.
Outline of the New Zealand experience
Parental and community involvement in schools - opportunities
and challenges for school change
Paper prepared for the International Symposium on Creation of Schools
for the 21st Century
Tokyo, 12 March 2002.
New Zealand Council for Educational Research
New Zealand has a long history of parental involvement in schools, particularly at the elementary level (Years 1-8). Typically, parents have supported the work of teachers by undertaking tasks such as the preparation of resources, accompanying classes on school trips, assisting with reading or mathematics programmes, leading fund-raising activities and sharing their cultural and professional expertise. But schools were administered by an extensive centralised bureaucracy and the 1980s saw a growing dissatisfaction with this system, its apparent inflexibility and lack of responsiveness to parents and the local community. People felt they were unable to influence the system (Picot, 1988) and the Government concluded that ‘our children will not receive the education to which they are entitled unless our administration of education is effective’ (Lange, 1988, iii). So while focusing on administration, the subsequent reforms – Tomorrow’s Schools – were intended to improve student achievement by improving parental involvement in schools, making schools more responsive to their local community and making teachers more accountable. These changes were promoted in the belief that this would enable schools to be more innovative and more attractive to groups which were missing out, particularly Maori and children from low-income families (Wylie, 1999).
In the wake of the administrative reforms the emphasis of parental and community involvement in schools changed from a largely supportive role to one that was intended as a partnership. Wylie (1999) argued that ‘"Partnership" has been one of the prevailing themes of the reforms: partnerships between trustees and school professionals, between schools and parents, and between schools and the government’ (p93). The parental and community partnership with schools has been played out in two different ways. Firstly, through a governance role with elected school boards being composed mainly of parents and, secondly, as a mutual collaboration of teachers with families and community members in activities designed to promote learning. The latter relationship has given parents a legitimate advocacy role for their children and so for ensuring schools are responsive to their needs.
For this symposium on the Creation of Schools for the 21st Century, I have been asked to comment upon the results of New Zealand experience of educational reform in terms of parental and community involvement in the day-to-day operation of schools as well as the influence parents and communities are having in creating and re-creating schools to better meet the needs of students today and for the future. To address this brief I will begin by reviewing the evidence relating to parental and community involvement in schools following the reforms and highlight some of the opportunities and challenges that have arisen. One of the challenges for this democratic school model is working within parental and community values while also ensuring that schools continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of students and the society of the future. For most schools this is an evolutionary process but I will describe how some communities have taken the opportunities provided by Tomorrow’s Schools to create new schools. Finally, I will describe current initiatives for managing change and highlight some of the challenges for re-creating schools within the context of a self-managing school system.
School trustees with schools (principals and teachers)
Under the Tomorrow’s Schools initiative most of the responsibilities for the management and governance of New Zealand’s schools were transferred from the Government to individual schools. Subsequently, in 1991, the power of the local schools was further extended by removing zoning requirements, thereby opening up the state school system to the full rigours of competition and parental choice (Boston, 2000). Each school is governed by an elected board of trustees which is responsible for the effective management of the school. The responsibility involves meeting the legal requirements of the Education Act and the associated National Education Guidelines. This means that it is the Board of Trustees which employs teachers and holds the school principal responsible for teacher performance, the effective implementation of the curriculum, and for the finances and school property.
Throughout the 1990s the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) monitored the impact of the reforms on elementary schools through a series of national surveys of people at schools: principals, trustees, teachers, and parents. The 1999 report indicated that boards were becoming more representative of their communities in such areas as qualifications and income levels (Wylie, 1999). Another study, undertaken by Burke at the University of Otago, confirmed these findings and found that the great majority of boards felt they were successful and functioned well. Burke (2000) reported that board members believed that involving parents resulted in better education and it was this belief that provided the greatest motivation for taking on the role as governors. Women were more likely than men to say they joined a board because of an interest in education (46%:26%) and men more likely to say they wanted to be involved so they could influence how things were done (46%:35%) (Burke, 2000).
There is a diversity of opinion too in the way the disparate partners responsible for school management view the relative importance of the roles of the board of trustees. In the 1999 report Wylie suggested that government departments stress boards’ legal accountability for schools’ performance and their status as employer of school staff; both functions that are not commonly emphasised by the board members themselves. Boards, however, increasingly have to deal with industrial issues (Wylie, 1999) and the appointment of the principal is probably their most important task (New Zealand School Trustees Assoc (STA), pers comm., 2002). Trustees view their key roles as representing parents in school and providing direction for the school. While trustees’ views have remained much the same in the last two NZCER national surveys (1996 and 1999) principals are now more likely to see the trustees’ role in terms of providing a direction for the school, and less as providing partnership with school staff, although the latter is still the most frequent view (Wylie, 1999). In practice, it is the management of funding and property however, rather than school development, that is the main focus of board activity. These two issues which, interestingly, were the main concerns of school committees that existed prior to 1989, plus the additional concern for managing the school roll, are currently the primary issues for school boards.
The 1999 NZCER survey indicated that most principals continue to find government funding inadequate to meet their school’s needs, despite real increases to the government operational funding in the latter part of the 1990s. Local fund-raising for schools has increased substantially over the decade. Without such events and the continuing efforts by schools to secure additional funding, mainly from the Government, but also from corporate organisations and philanthropic trusts, most schools would either have to reduce some of their activities or operate in a deficit (Wylie, 1999). The fact that this is the case for schools, including those which are more able to raise money from the school communities, indicates that there are difficulties in all communities in matching revenue with expectations, both governmental and locally generated (Wylie, 1999). Perhaps one of the greatest costs of the self-managing school model has been the meeting of these changing expectations. One the one hand the accountability requirements imposed by the Government have significantly increased the workload for boards, principals, and teachers and on the other hand those involved in running schools are needing to work harder to take account of parent and community expectations.
Parents and communities with schools (principals and teachers)
Parental satisfaction with the quality of their child’s education has always been high and this has remained relatively static through the implementation of the reforms (for example, 84 percent of parents of elementary age children were generally happy with the quality of their child’s schooling, 7 percent were unsure and only 8 percent were not, Wylie, 1999, p172). Similarly, parental contact with elementary schools was high before decentralisation and it has not increased since. In fact, from the parental perspective, there has been some decline in parental help with class activities, which may reflect the busier lives of parents, particularly if they are engaged in paid employment (Wylie, 1999).
There are, of course, parents who want more of schools. By 1999, a few parents (11 percent) wanted more of a say in their child’s schools, with rather more (28 percent) wanting to change something about the school, such as class size, more individual help for children, or more challenging or more academic work (Wylie, 1999). Further, while the issues raised by parents with school boards appear to be declining, discipline and health and safety remain the main issues of concern.
Overall, however, while the reforms emphasised the parent-school partnership and the need for collaboration in school decision making, with the exception of the parents on boards of trustees, the involvement of the majority of parents in schools is still at the level of ‘being informed’ or ‘taking part in activities’ (Bird, 1998). These are relatively passive roles and do not include contributing, at least explicitly, to school decision making.
The competitive school model, however, has fuelled parental anxiety about education and changed the traditional practice of sending a child to the local school to actively selecting, and often re-selecting, a school to suit the values and priorities of the parent and child. As parents have exercised this choice it has led to over-subscribed schools and those with declining rolls. In turn, this has placed considerable pressure on schools to promote and market themselves which, of course has financial implications. A current NZCER research project, Sustainable School Improvement, that is designed to increase understanding of the factors involved in school improvement, has identified a diversity of strategies that schools are employing in an attempt to work collaboratively with parents in the education of their children and to reassure parents that their children are receiving the best education. These include the following.
- Schools being very conscious of the need to promote themselves. In the words of one principal there is "No use in having a good product if no-one knows about it."
- Many having glossy brochures highlighting what the school has to offer and websites designed both to promote the school and to communicate with parents.
- Considerable attention being given to the appearance of schools so that they appear welcoming (for example, through the display of student work) and convey the values of the school community (for example, school uniforms).
- Efforts being made by staff to connect with the community. For example, by offering the facilities to early childhood centres; staff visiting early childhood centres; and opportunities actively sought for publicity through local media.
- Schools ensuring opportunities for informal events with parents. For example, family/school/community social events and using these to have discussions with parents on the progress of their children or school policy.
- Efforts to communicate more effectively with parents. This includes principals having an ‘open-door’ policy and principals and teachers operating ‘late-night’ sessions so that they are available to parents who cannot visit the school in the day. Also, significant changes in the writing of reports to parents so that there can be a shared understanding of children’s progress.
Despite the challenges presented by the reforms there is widespread support for the self-managing school concept and the vast majority of schools prefer the autonomy of self-governance and the greater freedom of decentralisation (Fiske and Ladd, 2000). There have been gains, too, in partnerships formed between the boards of trustees and professionals – partnerships which usually work well and constructively for the benefit of the students (Wylie, 1999). Similarly, there has been an increased emphasis on school development and on the need for the on-going professional development of teachers. However, while initially the responsibility for school self development rested largely at the local level there is accumulating research evidence to suggest that this is insufficient to make substantive changes to critical aspects of schooling such as curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (Wylie, 1999). In reality, professionals in schools can be ‘caught’ between wanting to initiate change to learning programmes and meeting the needs of the parents and local community. The latter are more likely to initiate change through raising issues, such as requiring a school to deal with a perceived bullying problem or wanting to introduce or improve a student uniform (STA, pers comm., 2002). In this way the energy of principals and teachers can be diverted from innovation within the classroom as they work to meet immediate community expectations related to issues such as behaviour and appearance. Further, parents, frequently professionals, whose own experiences of school were positive can advocate very strongly for the status quo. This can make it even more difficult for schools to implement changes that might assist students to be better prepared for a different future or better meet the needs of students who have not been so well served by schools. On the other hand, the reforms have served to call schools to account, to be more responsive to their parents and to keeping them informed. This places the responsibility on schools to engage with parents and the community in an on-going dialogue about issues such as the nature of curriculum, changing pedagogies, and approaches to assessment so that there is a shared understanding of the purpose of schooling and of the rationale for new directions.
Recognition of the difficulty that schools face in initiating change alone has led to the government taking a more active role in supporting school change. Before describing some of these more recent policy initiatives I want to discuss briefly how some communities, who felt that change within the mainstream sector was never going to provide schools that would reflect their priorities, have used the legislation associated with the reforms to create new schools.
Developing new schools
The Education Act, 1989 gave communities the right to set up their own state-funded school if the school was one with ‘special character’. This may be where Te Reo Maori is the principal language of instruction’ or it can be demonstrated that this school will provide a style of education not currently available in the state system. A minimum of 21 students is required and the Ministry requires sufficient evidence that there are very clear values and an understanding of how these will be implemented in practice. The view is taken that hurdles should be put at the beginning of the endeavour as once a school is opened it is difficult to close an unsuccessful experiment (Ministry of Education, pers comm., 2002).
Commonly, the ‘special character’ of these schools is of a religious nature or one which reflects a particular educational philosophy. The Catholic Schools in New Zealand, for example, meet the special character provision, as does a newly opened inner-city-based primary school, Discovery One. The latter advocates learning by discovery, doing away with formal structures such as teaching only in classrooms between 9am and 3pm. The school is required to provide programmes that meet national curriculum requirements but the approach relies on teachers and parents working together with the students to set individual educational goals and projects based on each child’s special interests. The ‘special character’ is reflected not only in the ‘school without walls’ approach but also in its focus on innovation and entrepreneurialism.
The most significant development under the Education Act (1989) and its provision for communities to begin new schools is the Kura Kaupapa Maori movement. The special character of Kura Kaupapa Maori requires that Te Reo Maori is the principal language of instruction and it also requires adherence to the principles of Te Aho Matua (a curriculum document) and an accommodation of the language, history, values, beliefs, and practices of the school community (Te Runanga Nui o nga Kura Kaupapa Maori o Aotearoa, 1998). Currently, there are 59 Kura Kaupapa, with 14 of these offering secondary schooling.
In an NZCER study designed to investigate the aspirations and concerns of Maori parents/whanau, McKinley (2000) found that the parents and teachers in kura understood that their child’s education was not the sole responsibility of the school but one that was shared by home. One the other hand, she found that while English-medium and bilingual-unit principals would like parents and children to operate in partnership with the school, many Maori parents believed that it was the school’s responsibility to teach their child and their role was to support as best they could (p.151). Kura Kaupapa Maori are anchored in the community they make with parents – the kura may be distinct from the community but not separated from it (McKinley, 2000). In other schools, the work of building a joint community with Maori parents is harder, and rests more on individual teachers’ efforts. This poses a considerable challenge to schools as they work to improve the achievement of their students by developing active partnerships with parents.
Managing change – new initiatives
Although the report leading to the reforms recognised that New Zealand was a small country with fewer children and schools than some school districts in other countries and so a degree of centralisation would always be necessary (Picot, 1988) the nature of this control from the centre was initially in the form of accountability requirements. Over time there has been a rejection of the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools under which all schools were required to stand alone as autonomous units in a competitive environment, regardless of their particular circumstance or coping capacity (Boston, 2000). New policy has led, for example, to new governance arrangements, in the form of clusters of schools under one board, for some schools that had been facing financial or systemic difficulties. Similarly, to address the effects of marketisation and the creation of winner and loser schools the Labour government reintroduced school zoning to force schools to ballot to determine enrolments in over-subscribed schools. In the latter part of the 1990s the Government also initiated major interventions focused on improving teaching and learning. Interventions focusing on improving literacy and numeracy have been nationwide; others have targeted clusters of schools that have a high proportion of underachieving students. A key platform of these interventions has been the role of parents in supporting learning and a recognition of the need in some communities for parental education so that they are indeed able to support the learning of their children.
The importance of the parental role in children’s learning is clearly signalled in a longitudinal study, Competent Children, that is charting the factors influencing children’s progress from early childhood education through school. The report of the children at 10 years of age indicates that children from homes where there are activities and interactions with strong cognitive components, who are able to use their reading, writing, and mathematical knowledge and skills at home as well as school, show higher achievement levels (Wylie, Thompson, & Lythe, 2001). High levels of parental education are likely in such home environments and, while low education levels do not prevent them, it is much harder for parents who did not enjoy educational success themselves to support the cognitive development of their children (Wylie at al., 2001).
A growing awareness of the key role of parents in successful learning at school is acknowledged in the report of the Literacy Taskforce who were commissioned by the Government to provide advice that would assist achieving the goal of every child of nine being able to read and write for success.
Learning is enhanced when teachers know something of children’s home language experiences. Partnerships between school and home are not one-way, and schools should be seeking information from children’s homes as well as providing parents and whanau with information. The taskforce acknowledged that getting parents involved in school activities is a priority, although it can also be a challenge, particularly if parents are not successful readers and writers themselves, their experiences of schools have been mostly negative, or their home language is different from the language of instruction for their children (Ministry of Education (MOE, 1999).
Currently, the government is funding a number of school improvement initiatives, predominantly located in low-income communities. One focus of these initiatives has been developing partnerships between the Ministry of Education, schools, and communities to ensure local ownership and sustainability of improvement over the longer term. The Government believes that ‘the quality of the relationships which schools forge with their students’ families and wider communities is critical to raising student achievement’ (MOE, 2001, p.30). It is working to reinforce the notion that education is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of schools. As part of the nation-wide Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, a public information campaign, Feed the Mind – Whangaihia te Hinengaro, aimed at showing parents and other community members that there are many simple, everyday things they can do with their children that will help them develop literacy and numeracy skills (MOE, 2001). There are also Government-funded programmes designed to improve the knowledge base of parents, such as adult literacy courses and free community access to, and tuition in, ICT.
Future challenges for change and innovation
In all, the experience of the past decade has demonstrated that changing and developing a nation’s schooling sector is complex. There can be unanticipated and unwelcome consequences, such as the creation of ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ schools, and so the demand for new policy to ensure more equitable outcomes. The change to self-managing schools has also demonstrated that parents can have direct influence on schools through a governance role and an indirect influence as schools change to address the expectations of parents and communities and to reflect their values and priorities. It has led to schools being more accountable to parents and more mindful that change cannot happen without parental support. In turn, this means that parents need to understand the purpose of change and to have more knowledge of their role in supporting the learning of their children. It has highlighted that schools are just part of the learning opportunities available to students and that parents and the wider community are also part of the picture. The reforms have placed the spotlight on the critical importance of the relationship between all the significant players – students, teachers, principals, boards, parents and the community – if students are to experience quality teaching and learning.
As important, the New Zealand experience has demonstrated that these relationships, particularly the school-parent partnership, are a necessary but not sufficient component of a learning society. If schools are isolated units there may be changes that address immediate, local concerns and needs but they are unlikely to lead to a rapid ‘renewing’ of schooling. Parents, the community and, at times, teachers and principals, can be conservative forces in the face of change. In addition, significant change cannot occur without parental and community support and their confidence in the leadership offered by the professional educators. However, if schools are to evolve at a rate at least as rapidly as society itself, let alone in a way that might have schools aiming for outcomes that will be needed by students in their future world, we need to find new ways to ‘renew’ schools. This won’t happen without leadership at both the school and national level so that a shared view develops of what schools are aiming to achieve and how this might be different from the past. And it certainly will not be achieved without an active partnership between schools and their communities.
Bird, L. (1998). Parental involvement in schools – is it window dressing or a genuine step towards collaboration? Paper presented to the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Conference, December 1998, Dunedin.
Boston, J. (2000). The unbalanced educational laboratory. Educational Review, May 19, 2000.
Burke, P. (2000). Membership, Motivation, and Perceptions of Power. Paper presented to the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Conference, December 2000, Hamilton.
Fiske, E. B. & Ladd, H. F. (2000). When schools compete: a cautionary tale. Washington: The Brookings Institution Press.
Lange, D. (1988). Tomorrow’s Schools: the reform of educational administration in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printer.
McKinley, S. (2000). Maori parents and education: ko nga matua Maori me te matauranga. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
Ministry of Education (1999). Report of the Literacy Taskforce. Wellington: Ministry of Education.
Ministry of Education (2001). New Zealand Schools Nga Kura o Aotearoa. Minister of Education. A report on the compulsory schools sector in New Zealand 2000. Wellington: Ministry of Education.
Picot Report (1988). Administering for excellence: effective administration in education. Wellington: Government Printer.
Te Runanga Nui o nga Kura Kaupapa Maori Aotearoa (Mana Topu) (1998). Including Te Aho Matua into s155 of the Education Act, 1989. A Submission to the Associate Minister of Education, 29 September 1998.
Wylie, C. (1999). Ten years on: how schools view educational reform. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
Wylie, C., Thompson, J., & Lythe, C. (2001). Competent children at 10: families, early education, and schools. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
|Parental and community involvement in schools: Opportunities and challenges for school change||727.7 KB|