Parent engagement is by no means a new concept in education circles.

Research over the last 60 years, conducted here in Australia and overseas, has proven its value – and its incredible potential for improving students’ academic, social and emotional outcomes.

As a result, parent engagement is a strong priority of governments, it is cemented in national and state education policies and teachers’ professional standards, and it increasingly features in schools’ strategic plans.

But what has been missing for a long time has been the rich, practical, evidence-based examples of the ‘how to’ of parent engagement.

That is now changing thanks to a ground-breaking research project underway in the Queensland independent school sector.

Unpacking EPIC

The research project – Engaging Parents in Inquiry Curriculum – (we call it “EPIC” for short) – began in early 2021 and is a collaboration between Queensland Independent Schools Parents Network, our friends at Independent Schools Queensland, and Griffith University.

EPIC is being led by Australia’s leading parent engagement experts, Dr Linda Willis and Professor Beryl Exley of Griffith University, who are collaborating closely with several Queensland independent schools in different contexts.

Dr Willis and Prof Exley work side-by-side with teachers and school leaders from the early years to senior secondary levels as they explore new ways to engage parents or refine existing parent engagement strategies.

Our EPIC project is only 18 months old but it is producing some exciting findings that are not only demystifying the practice of effective parent engagement, but also delivering for our independent school leaders, teachers and parents a suite of resources and guiding principles for how they can work better together for the benefit of all students.

The other good news is that many of the teachers taking part in EPIC say that it has only involved small tweaks to their current approach to curriculum and pedagogy …. and parents are appreciating the increased communication and insights into their child’s school learning.

A recap on parent engagement

Most people know that parent engagement in the education of a child is different from parent involvement in school life.

Parent involvement occurs when a mum volunteers for a position on the P&C or a dad turns up at a fundraising event and turns the snags on the bbq (both fabulous ways to support a school, but the impact they have on a child’s learning tends to be more indirect than direct).

Parent engagement instead is something much richer and deeper and directly connects to a child’s school learning.

When schools and teachers engage parents, they draw them closer to what their child is learning at school that day, that week, that month, thereby giving parents information, ideas and opportunities to value-add directly to that learning.

A parent armed with information from the teacher about what is happening in the classroom can then chat to their child in the car on the way home about the topic, or perhaps around the dinner table, or look at photographs together with their child, or share memories, stories, and experiences about the topic, or maybe all of these!

If they have specific knowledge about the topic, the parent may also offer to come into the class or join a virtual platform to share what they know, thereby benefiting all children, not just their own.

International and Australian research over many decades shows that when schools and families work together in these ways, the effect on children can be overwhelmingly positive.

Students generally:

  • do better at school
  • stay in school longer
  • are more engaged in their learning at school and home
  • behave better
  • have better social skills

EPIC’s findings so far

Some of the evidence-based findings to emerge from EPIC so far include:

  • Parent engagement activities should be tailored to a school’s unique context and community: what is effective for one school may not be for another.
  • Schools need to adopt a welcoming approach to parents that begins at the school gate.
  • Invitations to parents to value-add to their child’s learning in school should be “short in duration, sharp in focus, offered regularly, always optional, personal to them and have a clear purpose”.
  • Parent engagement strategies in a school have a much greater chance of long-term success if they are modelled and encouraged by the school’s leadership team.

Lead researcher Dr Linda Willis said the EPIC research had also shown that effective parent engagement strategies “don’t need to be epic”.

“If I had to talk about parent engagement simply it’s about having the child in the middle and the school and the parent working as partners to improve a child’s learning and well-being,’’ Dr Willis said.

“Often it’s a matter of teachers just asking one question of themselves during every curriculum planning session and that is ‘how can I bring what I’m teaching a child and what the parent knows about what I’m teaching their child closer together?’.

“When teachers do that, it’s potentially a game-changer.”

The method of communication parents respond to best is another focus of the EPIC research.

“While some parents might value email as a way of getting information from their child’s teacher about what is being taught that day or week,’’ Dr Willis explains, “others will respond better to a video blog that they can watch at night or perhaps a virtual space where they can exchange ideas at a time that suits them.”

Dr Willis said EPIC had also confirmed that school leadership plays a key role in effective parent engagement.

“School leaders set the tone and establish a culture of parent engagement at all levels of the school,’’ she said.

Resources shared across all independent schools in Queensland

The 2021 EPIC research findings were converted into shareable resources for all Queensland independent schools to start using straight away.

EPIC is also continuing in 2022 in a scaled up way – involving more teachers and school leaders and we look forward to delivering a new suite of resources for all member schools towards the end of the year. Planning for 2023 is also well underway.

Hear what our teachers, parents and students say about EPIC in this short video.

Read more about EPIC including profile stories on some of our participating schools here.

About the Queensland Independent Schools Parents Network

The Queensland Independent Schools Parents Network (QIS Parents Network) represents the families of more than 140,000 students enrolled in 230 Queensland independent schools.

We are regularly consulted by governments and other peak education groups on policy matters that affect the families of independent school children.

We are also passionate advocates for positive and respectful learning partnerships between schools, parents and children.

We are committed to building and enhancing parent engagement through our hub of extensive online resources, school-driven research projects and ongoing leadership in this important area.

Story credit

This story was written by QIS Parents Network’s Executive Officer Amanda Watt and originally published in the Australian Parents Council Review (September 2022 edition) as Bringing Parents closer to their child’s learning: insights from the latest parent engagement research in Australia.