Supporting Families with Basic NeedsNov 04, 2021
Channel 4 recently aired an episode of Dispatches entitled Growing Up Poor: Britain's Hidden Homeless. This interesting but deeply troubling documentary was based on three young boys (and their families) living in challenging circumstances in Luton. All the families faced financial difficulties and had undergone significant hardship, resulting in lost learning, during the pandemic.
The documentary achieved its purpose in informing the audience of the shockingly high number of 'hidden' homeless children: there were 59,120 households with children living in temporary accommodation in England in the first quarter of this year (2021)1. It also gave a voice to 3 different families living in poverty and facing exceedingly difficult personal circumstances.
This documentary was also interesting from a parental engagement perspective. It made me think of a problem that we often encounter working with schools to improve their parental engagement: that the school's priorities and the parents' priorities are different.
Maslow's motivational theory dictates that basic deficit needs must be satisfied before the individual's higher 'growth' needs can be met. Applying this model to the families featured in the Dispatches documentary, it was difficult for them to prioritise their children's education when they were struggling to meet their family's basic needs for food, warmth, and shelter. However, it was clear that the parents were trying their very best.
Indeed, it is often the case that families in challenging circumstances are unable to engage with their child's learning in the 'traditional' way (attending school events, reading with their children etc.) because they are using all their time and energy trying to meet their family’s basic needs such as providing enough food and paying rent.
In addition to being resource-poor, one of the main barriers to engagement for these families is that they can feel judged by the school for not engaging with their child's education in the expected way, which can alienate them further.
This perceived feeling of judgement is not necessarily a direct result of the school's actions and attitudes. No teacher would set out to make a vulnerable parent feel judged. However, schools are under pressure to deliver results, keep attendance high, and demonstrate pupil progress. Because of this, it can be difficult to maintain good relationships with parents, especially those parents who appear to be reluctant to engage in their child's learning.
It's a case of clashing priorities, and it can be challenging to resolve.
PEN finds that there's often a misconception about what parental engagement means; that many think it only equates to parents attending parents' evenings, supporting PTA events and helping their children complete homework. We believe that so much more progress can be made if schools are more welcoming and flexible in their approach to engaging parents and acknowledge that parents always want the best for their child and are doing the best that they can.
Schools that help families meet their most basic needs are supporting the home-school learning relationship at its most fundamental level. The relationship that is built during crisis sets the foundations for good communication and trust. These are key factors in parental engagement and will have long term benefits to the child's academic achievement.
The school featured in the Dispatches documentary, Farley Junior Academy, were doing some good work in this area. It was clear that they understood the importance of developing trust with their families. They appeared to have developed good relationships with parents by helping them meet their most basic needs. For instance, assisting families to fill in and print benefits forms, access healthcare and translation services. They also liaised between families and local food banks, and staff dropped food parcels off during the school holidays. In the documentary, one of the school's pastoral care team said:
"If we can remove one pressure from him [a parent] or help out a tiny weeny bit, you know, it could make a big impact on how he is at home or how the family is run."
Some will argue that this high level of support and intervention is not the work of teaching staff, who should instead be focusing on the curriculum and student attainment. Of course, in an ideal world, this would be the case. However, with 4 million children growing up in poverty and countless others facing different social challenges in Britain, PEN believes schools should be supporting families in any way they can.
Offering excellent pastoral care builds trust, which is hugely important for any future engagement with parents. The research tells us that parent involvement is a much bigger factor than school effects in shaping achievement.
We know from our Network, that schools who invest in their communities in this way, see long term benefits in improved attendance, behaviour and attainment outcomes for students.
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