Each child and young person's parents and whānau are their first and most important teachers. Building educationally powerful connections and relationships between parents, whānau and schools is vital for each child and young person's ongoing learning and success.

Educationally powerful connections and relationships:

  • are learning-focused
  • support the two-way sharing of expertise in ways that acknowledge, understand and celebrate similarities and differences.

Why are educationally powerful connections and relationships vital?

Particular kinds of school-family connections can have large positive effects on the academic and social outcomes of students, especially those who have been underserved or who are at risThese children need extra support to catch up to their peers.

The Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis (BES)1 found successful school-family connections were characterised by:

  • families being treated with dignity and respect
  • programmes adding to family practices - not undermining them
  • structured, specific suggestions rather than general advice
  • supportive group opportunities as well as one-to-one contact (especially informal contact).

While emphasising the importance of these relationships, the BES also cautioned it was possible for schools to invest considerable time, energy and resources in engaging with families and communities in ways that have little, or even negative, impacts on student outcomes.

Although high quality teaching is the biggest in-school influence on student learning, most children spend less than half their time in formal education settings. John Hattie's meta-analysis 2 found a child or young person's home environment has a larger effect on their education success than a range of other inputs such as homework, reducing class sizes and small group learning.

The OECD 3 found certain home activities were more strongly related to better student reading outcomes than others. Reading books to children when they are beginning primary school, and talking with young people about topical political or social issues had the largest positive impacts on learning. In another study, the OECD4 reported on the positive impact of parents creating an environment that promotes early exposure to mathematical knowledge and reasoning. Both reports commented that schools appeared to wait until students struggled with learning before meeting with parents to discuss how they could work together to support success. The reports suggested that inviting parents to work with schools when the child is performing well sends a positive message that the school genuinely values the child and their parents.

In several previous national reports, ERO has commented on the quality of family-school relationships as schools strive to improve educational outcomes for all students.

For example, ERO found that in schools that were taking strategic and successful actions to support Year Year 1 to 8 students to accelerate progress, parents and whānau tended to be well informed about what their child needed. 5 The child's need was explained in ways that made it clear that teachers and leaders knew they were responsible for student achievement and their accelerated progress, but they also needed help from the parents and whānau. Teachers invited parents and whānau to discuss their child's interests to find contexts that would motivate and engage them. They also worked together to develop home activities. Less effective schools knew it was important to develop these relationships and often had this as a school goal, but were not specific in their request for parent and whānau support. This meant many actions to develop relationships were superficial.

In a 2014 ERO evaluation, schools with an extensive approach to student wellbeing saw families as inherently capable. These schools informed parents of any concerns about their child and invited them to help develop solutions.6

Does the focus of these relationships change over time?

Parental 7 engagement in education takes different forms for different parents and whānau, and at different ages and stages. Education (and learning itself) happens all the time, in formal and informal settings. Parents have different roles at different times, but they are always important.8

The Harvard Family Involvement Makes a Difference research found while high quality, two-way communication between home and school was important at all school levels, at the secondary level this communication also included a focus on exploring beyond-school options such as the transition from school to further study at a tertiary level. Likewise, while maintaining high expectations by schools and parents was important for all ages, as young people moved from primary to secondary school there was a shift from supporting literacy, helping with homework and managing children's education to a focus on homework management and parents encouraging further education. This changed focus was due to two factors:

  1. Young people's development. Although primary-aged children start to spend more time away from their families, generally their families organise their lives. In contrast, adolescents actively seek autonomy and time with their peers and are willing to take more risks as they form their own identity.
  2. Changing desired outcomes. A growing body of research,9, 10 indicates that when a young person's learning improves in literacy, numeracy and key competencies, they can learn better in all other areas. Over time, outcome priorities shift to expectations for lifelong learning and developing pathways to further education and qualifications to decrease the likelihood of 'dropping out'.11

The Harvard research confirmed the findings from the BES and OECD work, that family involvement in schooling is important for students of all ages and when strengthened, leads to positive educational outcomes.

What is expected?

The importance of parents and teachers working together for student success is embedded in New Zealand's key education policy including:

  • The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC)12 principles: Schools are expected to engage with community so that "the curriculum has meaning for students, connects with their wider lives, and engages the support of their families, whānau, and communities”.
  • ERO's School Evaluation Indicators: Effective Practice for Improvement and Learner Success (trial document): Domain 3: Educationally powerful connections and relationships.13
  • Ka Hikitia Accelerating Success 2013-2017:14 goals for schools and kura. Schools and kura are expected "to create productive partnerships with parents, whānau, hapG, iwi, communities and businesses that are focused on educational success”.
  • Pasifika Education Plan 2013-2017:15 Pasifika parents, families and communities need to:
    • engage with schools in supporting their children's learning
    • support and champion their children's learning and achievements
    • be better informed, more knowledgeable and demanding consumers of education services.

School Evaluation Indicators

ERO's School Evaluation Indicators (trial document] 16 highlight effective relationships with parents and whānau, in particular indicators from three domains: Leadership of conditions for equity and excellence; Educationally powerful connections and relationships; and Responsive curriculum, effective teaching and opportunity to learn.

Domain 2: Leadership of conditions for equity and excellence:

  • Leadership builds capability and collective capacity in evaluation and inquiry for sustained improvement and innovation.
  • Leadership builds relational trust and effective participation and collaboration at every level of the school community.

Domain 3: Educationally powerful connections and relationships:

  • Community collaboration and partnerships extend and enrich opportunities for students to become confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.
  • Communication supports and strengthens reciprocal, learning centred relationships.17
  • Student learning at home is actively promoted through the provision of relevant learning opportunities, resources and support.
  • Learning centred relationships effectively engage and involve the school community.

Domain 4: Responsive curriculum, effective teaching and opportunity to learn:

  • Students learn, achieve and progress in the breadth and depth of The New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa.
  • Students have effective, sufficient and equitable opportunities to learn.
  • Effective assessment for learning develops students' assessment and learning to learn capabilities.

conceptual framework

What is the issue?

The New Zealand Council for Education Research (NZCER) found most parents and whānau had friendly relationships with schools but not enough schools had educationally powerful connections and relationships. In their surveys of primary18 and secondary19 schools, NZCER found that while many parents were satisfied with their relationship with their child's school, too many felt undervalued and uninformed. NZCER's findings included many parents:

  • feeling unwelcome at school or uncomfortable talking with teachers
  • uncertain if teachers understood things about their family and culture and had high expectations for their child
  • feeling that the school had not provided them with good ideas for helping with their child's learning and information about achieving qualifications
  • feeling that the schools had not provided good information about different course options and their connection to tertiary education and employment
  • interested in having more communication about their child's progress, how to support their child's learning, and more individual help for students.

A recent report by the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) about relationships between schools and Maori whānau20 found that nine out of 10 schools believed they had effective relationships with whānau but only six out of 10 whānau believed they had effective relationships with the school. The OAG report suggested that:

Essentially, there is no ‘one way' or ‘best way' for schools and Maori communities to engage with each other. It is clear, however, that the balance of responsibility resides with the schools and the stance they adopt in communicating with whānau, hapu, and, on occasions, iwi. Although this report does not make a conclusion that improved relations between schools and Maori communities necessarily led to improved learning performances of Maori students, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that, where communicative relations are strained, mutual benefits are less likely to accrue.

Other research21 found perceived community expectations and perceptions about their own skills and experiences can make it either easier or harder for parents and whānau to get involved with their child's schooling. School leaders and teachers were more likely to deliberately invite parents and whānau into the school learning process if they had explored their assumptions about:

  • the nature of a parent's involvement in their child's education
  • parents making a useful contribution.

This research also found it was much harder for parents and whānau to get involved if they were asking:

  • Is it my role to get involved in my child's education?
  • Can I make a useful contribution?