One of the main social and economic rationales for adult learning is the hope it can offer to people with low educational attainment to improve their skills and qualifications levels. Sadly, it is often the people most in need of adult learning who are least likely to participate. Such facts are well known. Perhaps less considered are the vicious circles of low educational attainment that can exist within families and communities: parents who became disengaged from formal education when at school and who underachieved have a strong likelihood of having children who will themselves underachieve.
Such vicious circles form the subject matter for a recent report from the EU-funded URBACT PREVENT project on parental involvement in education for early school leaving prevention. The report, authored by Paul Downes (Director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at St. Patrick’s College in Dublin, Ireland), is the outcome of work over a number of years in 10 city municipalities from Stockholm to Catania and Gijon to Sofia. Although it looks at why and how parents should play a central role in early school leaving prevention strategies, its findings are of wider relevance to adult learning.
Taking its lead from a range of EU policy documents, the report draws attention to the emphasis placed on holistic and multidisciplinary approaches, and stresses the need to incorporate a lifelong learning education vision into a focus on parental involvement to tackle early school leaving. In short, a “community development vision" is needed that builds “cultural bridges" between schools and parents traditionally marginalised from the school system.
One of the major problems it identifies is that the voices of parents from marginalised communities are currently hidden within school systems and “democratisation" is needed to ensure their full engagement. This needs to go beyond the normal range of now well-established methods of parent-teacher consultation, to involve parents not just in school planning but activities like teacher promotion. New physical locations need to be found for community support and learning in “neutral" places where the cultural identities of marginalised communities are clearly visible in the immediate environment. For their part, teachers need to be clear about parental involvement and to have training in conflict resolution skills. Above all, the most important ingredient for effective parental involvement is a relational one, i.e. a “welcoming, open relational response to their needs, interests and concerns." Through such approaches, parents may find their own ways back into learning.
The report highlights a number of systemic problems that stand in the way of developing the response needed, not least the fragmentation of responsibilities between the different organisations and services that need to be involved, especially education and health. Strategies, it argues, need to be (A) differentiated, recognising that parents will have different levels of need and (B) holistic, including family support to bridge the health and education domains.
To support such strategies, it recommends the adoption of a set of structural indicators that identify the key features needed such as whether there exists a community outreach strategy through centres for lifelong learning and whether a given percentage of schools open their doors after school hours for lifelong learning courses for parents/adults. These indicators provide a clear framework of goals and outcomes to unite the different disciplinary approaches to engaging with families. Without them, the danger of fragmentation of response and territoriality between services will recur.
All in all, the report incisively delimits the key dimensions of this challenging problem, and convincingly argues for a set of structural solutions that are likely to be of value more generally in adult learning and also across a wide variety of contexts in Europe. It deserves to be widely read.
The report “Towards a Differentiated, Holistic and Systemic Approach to Parental Involvement in Europe for Early School Leaving Prevention” is available here.