Twenty years ago, Leon Feinstein, now Director of Evidence at The Children’s Commissioner for England, stated that “parental interest in their child’s education is the single greatest predictor of achievement at age 16.”
We also know that GCSE results are the greatest predictor of progression to higher education, so the argument for quality and sustained parental engagement is easy to make.
Parents and guardians in focus
Widening participation practitioners recognise parental influence over children’s decision-making and the need to ensure they are equipped with accurate knowledge about university access for their children. Yet institutions ultimately report on current student demographic data to measure the success of their widening participation initiatives. This inevitably leads to primary focus on what we might consider ‘direct action’ – intervening at school and college level with students themselves – while parental engagement is often tacked onto existing projects, for example at graduation events. In fact, a 2018 report commissioned by King’s College London found that only one fifth of parental engagement activities are designed specifically for parents and families.
In better cases, parental engagement is incorporated into student-focused programmes, usually in the form of information, advice and guidance sessions. Integrated parental engagement is undoubtedly of value and should absolutely continue, but it is time for parents, guardians and carers to access provisions that are solely for them. By listening to parents, finding out what they want, and offering it via tailored, high quality programmes, we validate their lived experiences and serve our communities with authenticity. We create parent leaders who can disseminate knowledge amongst their networks.
The Augar review recommends offering parents “improved information, advice and guidance enabling better support for prospective students’ choices.” Although this recommendation specifically concerns finance, it is a familiar approach to parental engagement more broadly. Access to information, advice and guidance is crucial for underrepresented families but for parental engagement to truly begin redressing education inequalities, we must challenge ourselves to do more than just providing information.
Parent Power is an engagement programme founded by King’s College London and Citizens UK, a campaigning charity whose mission it is to organise communities to act together for power, social justice and the common good. Parent Power recruits and trains parents to become experts in university access and campaign on issues of educational inequality within their communities. A meeting is held at King’s every six weeks on a Saturday morning where parents access information, advice and guidance sessions and skills workshops as well as hearing from role model speakers. Student ambassadors mind their children in the adjacent room, and we have lunch together when the meeting finishes. The meetings also provide space for frank discussions about education which inform their campaigns and drive them to mobilise.
But how did we get parents to engage with the programme? We recruited parents through the King’s Scholars Programme, our flagship pre-16 widening participation scheme of which the first intervention is a welcome session for the year seven scholars and their families. After identifying those who were interested in becoming Parent Power leaders, we invited over 50 parents to take part in a listening campaign which involved a one-to-one meeting with either a Community Organiser from Citizens UK or a member of widening participation staff.
Ask and don’t assume
A mistake people often make is assuming they understand what somebody wants or needs without asking them. Although parents, guardians and carers ultimately want success for their children, we must not assume we know what they perceive as barriers to this success, however earnest our intentions. By listening to someone’s story, you begin to understand their individual perspective. This informs the development of a programme which is thereby tailored to the specific needs of its audience. Furthermore, in an ever-changing educational landscape, regular one-to-ones with parents capture shifts in parents’ concerns.
Hundreds of hours of honest, meaningful conversations with parents formed the basis for Parent Power’s many successes. Members successfully campaigned for bespoke university visits at Oxford and Cambridge. They won bursary places at expensive summer schools. A group of nearly 100 were welcomed by the Widening Participation team at Imperial College London where they explored the university and learnt what it has to offer their children. Significantly, the relationship between Parent Power and other institutions and organisations were all initiated by parent leaders.
The ripple effect
Listening to parents also illuminated issues far beyond higher education and before long, simply helping parents understand the difference between campus and city universities, or walking them through the UCAS application process did not seem enough. Many identified rising rates of youth violence as a barrier to their children’s successful futures. Parent Power expressed these concerns to the London Mayoral Office and the newly formed Violence Reduction Unit subsequently agreed to involve parent leaders in their work. Some of the most powerful voices which emerged from one-to-one meetings were those of families burdened by child citizenship fees. Parents were desperately struggling to pay the £1012 it costs for their children to be rightful UK citizens.
Despite being born in this country, their children faced international university fees if they could not afford to apply to the Home Office or indeed if their non-refundable applications were denied. The urgency of these voices galvanised Parent Power into action and, alongside Citizens UK, they campaigned for a reduction in child citizenship fees. As a result, Citizens UK, EdAid and King’s College London are launching a child citizenship payment plan this summer. Affected families will pay 12 monthly instalments to make the process more manageable.
Parent Power recently won The Guardian University Award for social and community impact. The success of Parent Power lies in listening – really listening – to those whom it intends to help. Providing information, advice and guidance to help parents understand the UK higher education system is important. Arguably more important, though, is getting to know parents as human beings and opening up about your own experiences. Listening to parents talk freely about arriving in the UK without a word of English or about their daughter’s love of dancing; bonding over teenage summers you both spent trying to make it as holiday reps; empathising over an upcoming operation during their child’s GCSE exam season and asking how it went next time you see them; these conversations build trust and power between parents, community and institution, and they are the best way to ensure parents continue to access widening participation programmes.
As parent leaders continue to empower their local community, we hope other universities might adopt its model and ethos. By putting people before programme, we can empower communities to campaign for things they care about and invigorate the sector’s approach to parental engagement.