Schools White Paper: what behavioural science can add to the ‘Parent Pledge’


20th April 2022

One of the commitments in the recent Schools White Paper that generated plenty of discussions was the so-called “Parent Pledge”. This White Paper commitment takes what most schools already do (using assessment to identify pupils falling behind in core subjects, and informing parents about the actions taking place), and attempts to build an expectation of action, supported by inspection. Ofsted is the primary lever here – inspectors will expect to see and hear about this happening. 

Alongside the sectors’ largely justified cries of “but schools do this already!” there are a few important facts to consider. First, it’s quite rare for the Government to prescribe measures to boost parental engagement because it is difficult to do so. Second, organisations we work with (such as ParentKind) are pretty clear that this kind of dialogue between school and parents does not happen effectively in every school. Third, informing parents about progress and intervention is just one of many tools in schools’ parental engagement “toolkits”. 

In this blog, we explain parental engagement as a multi-faceted approach, and what can ambitious schools do to go beyond the expectations of the “Parent Pledge”. By using behavioural science, they can make the most of opportunities to collaborate and support pupils’ learning. 

Parent pledge: why does parental engagement matter?

Children spend a considerable chunk of their childhood in school. As the main figures of support, parents’ and carers’ involvement in children’s lives at school plays a crucial complementary role in the core work of schools and teachers. It can also benefit other youth outcomes. For example, it helps with overall child development, fosters more ambitious aspirations, and better social, emotional and mental health. And although the link is less direct, better parental or carer engagement can also improve the wider non-youth community. For example, a school that encourages engagement with parents and carers can also empower them as learners, therefore building stronger community assets.
 A parent supporting their child's life at school can result in improved attainment, attendance, and progression (from GCSE-level education to Further or Higher education and into career-based development) Share on X

What do we mean by parental engagement? 

Because parents are not a discrete, homogenous group, we need to be specific about how we want to engage them. We are talking about employing the time and attention of adults with differing values, availability, professions, interests, and levels of education. 

Seeking to engage them in their child’s education could mean physically encouraging parents to come into school and take part in activities or assemblies. Or, it could be values-based: engaging parents to align with school values and support education from home. 

Then, if we must develop parental engagement, are we developing how parents become engaged or how the schools engage parents? These distinctions are necessary because the time and effort invested will have different results based on the goals we set. To better explain, here are some examples of the different forms and types of parental engagement as described above relate to practical engagement, values-based, in the home and at school. 

if parental engagement becomes a goal to develop, are we developing how parents become engaged or how the schools engage parents? Share on X

Practical engagement:

  • providing guidance for parents to help with their child’s homework or to ask about their learning (for actions at home)
  • improving communication with the school about their child’s development (at home)
  • encouraging attendance to parents’ evenings and workshops, or regularly speaking with teachers (in school)
  • creating opportunities for involvement in the school community, for example, by creating governing or volunteering roles (in school)

Values-based engagement:

  • how parents value education, community, culture, etc. and promote their importance in the home (at home)
  • inviting parents to partake in school activities and ceremonies to promote school culture and values (in school)

How can schools engage with parents? An intro to nudging 

Schools must work to build a relationship with families through sustained interaction. Share on X

Engaging parents with support requires investment in communication as well as changing the school’s receptivity to parents. First, because we want to foster fruitful and effective engagement, schools need to make parents feel comfortable in approaching the school –asking for support and raising concerns. Schools must work to build a relationship with families through sustained interaction. To an extent, the ‘Parent Pledge’ encourages this, although we see a danger that the somewhat limited target audience may lead schools to neatly parcel up its parental engagement as a responsibility for a single member of staff or team. 

It’s more powerful having a whole-institution approach to building those relationships with parents, rather than putting the onus on individual teachers or Heads of Year. The wider school community will likely be diverse. Schools should look for ways in which this diversity can be built into an asset. For example, a school might seek out community groups that parents are already involved with to disseminate information about support or school values.

However, despite the conversation being school-focused, it is clear that parents are still free –to some extent– to choose to engage or not. The literature on behaviour science offers helpful insight to develop a range of ways a school might work with parents. For example, Damgaard and Nielsen (2018), explore ‘nudging’, a low-effort prompt for influencing choices, in educational contexts and in promoting parental engagement. A key takeaway is that nudging is most effective when the ‘nudge’ is specific to a barrier to action. Similarly, Park and Clemson (2020), review the use of behaviour science strategies in Early Childhood classrooms. In this case, finding that carefully designed and structured ‘choice architectures’ are a powerful way of influencing behaviour. 

despite the conversation being school-focused, it is clear that parents are still free –to some extent– to choose to engage or not Share on X

What strategies can schools use to engage with parents? 

Behavioural science gives us ways to change the ‘choice landscape’ for engagement in this case, to parents. Rather than parents choosing between to engage or not to engage, they are offered options about what engagement looks like. From small adjustments to logistics through to fundamental relationship building, schools can motivate parental decisions. 

For example, when it comes to increasing or promoting parental engagement in conversations about linking future plans to school performance, it might be useful to ask yourself as a school how you might:

  • establish ‘social norms’ –or what is acceptable and expected behaviour– around parents’ role in education at home. Should they be checking homework regularly, helping with revision, or supporting accountability with reading?
  • address biases in parents’ beliefs and attitudes about different educational factors. Perhaps some families are biased for or against certain subjects, or about how useful some types of work are. How can we shift these views? It would be key to learn what parents may value: learning about history may help for studying economics. This is not a straightforward relationship and may not be evident to parents who may value some subjects over others. 
  • change the default behaviour of parents and teachers concerning frequency, tone and content of parental action outside of school. Often, teachers hope that parents are involved regularly at home, and parents hope that teachers will let them know if they need anything from them. Can we sidestep this break in communication? 

Changing the default behaviour of delegating responsibility to parents, or to teachers, could look like this: 

  • using goal-setting to increase parents’ sense of efficacy and accountability. 
  • creating a sense of social belonging, encouraging parents to feel part of the school community.
  • facilitating parent-teacher-pupil interactions by creating and signposting times and physical or virtual spaces for these to occur.
  • raising awareness of the value of parental engagement in their children’s lives at school –we often talk to pupils about the value of homework and practice, why not talk to parents about the value of their involvement? Some may be underestimating their role in their child’s progress at school.  
From small adjustments to logistics through to fundamental relationship building, schools can motivate parental decisions Share on X

We see some real value in the ‘Parent Pledge’. Creating an expectation for all schools to communicate with parents when their child is falling behind builds on existing practice and extends it to all schools. Yet policymakers, charities and researchers need to continue to encourage schools to go beyond this baseline for parent engagement. 

However, there is a danger that schools may pick, and stick with, one single method of engaging parents. Instead, we should support schools to test out a variety of ways to improve and enhance the quality of their communication with parents. This may even result in smaller, yet more effective ways of investing time and resources. By building on what each school already does and tweaking it, schools may maximise their effectiveness.