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Unleashing parent power

Ellie Mulcahy and Loic Menzies introduce research for King’s College London which finds 95% of parents have concerns about their child going to university - including worries about debt, living costs and the support available.
This article is more than 5 years old

Ellie Mulcahy is a Head of Research at think- and action-tank The Centre for Education and Youth.

Loic Menzies is Director of the education and youth "think and action-tank" LKMco.

Almost all young people say that their parents influenced their education and career choices, yet our latest research, published with Kings College London last week, reveals that many universities fail to plan their outreach activities around parents.

Why might that be? We found that problems start early, many schools struggle to engage parents, yet in many cases, universities rely on schools in order to access parents. As one interviewee put it:

“Teachers are always acting as the gatekeepers so if parents aren’t engaging with the school, it’s really unlikely that they are going to engage with the university and the ones that aren’t engaged are probably the ones you want to engage the most.”

When the report was launched at The Brilliant Club conference, delegates highlighted that attempts to engage parents in their schools and universities can fail if parents’ hold negative perceptions and have a lack of experience of university themselves which can result in “suspicion about why you’re there” or a sense that university is not “a place that is for them”. Practitioners at the launch also highlighted the need for very practical solutions and guidance on how to engage parents.

Parents can’t be forgotten

Challenging though it might be, these difficulties need to be overcome. LKMco and King’s College London’s research found that 95% of parents have concerns about their child going to university, including worries about debt, living costs and the support available for students. Top concerns include debt (mentioned by 65% of parents), and future employment prospects (highlighted by 53% of parents). Unfortunately, we found that parents’ fears were often based on misconceptions or inaccurate information, including, for example, fears that university debt would stop their children from securing a mortgage. Given this, universities cannot afford to leave parents out of the picture.

The solution

Our research revealed that there are a number of ways universities can support effective engagement. Those just starting out may want to use existing student-focused programmes (including open days and school visits) to begin engaging with a ‘captive audience’ of parents. However, in doing so, they need to ensure that the activity in which they engage parents, has something that specifically addresses their needs or informs them about higher education itself, not just the student outreach programme. Active efforts to improve parents’ ability to support their child’s decision making should be core to any outreach programme.

Beyond that, universities should also look to build parental engagement programmes in which the core offer is for parents. This activity should be founded on the following principles:

  1. Build strong, multiagency partnerships: strong partnerships with schools open doors to parents and can be a stepping stone towards trustful relationships. Universities should develop such partnerships with both primary and secondary schools but they cannot solely rely on schools as an access point. Instead, Kings College London’s “Parent Power” and initiatives such as “IntoUniversity” have shown the potential of much more community-driven approaches that can re-engage disengaged parents. Universities should, therefore, consider charities, youth clubs and other services as part of their network of partners.
  2. Make parents comfortable: given that parents potential fears and trepidation in relation to university, initiatives should seek to meet parents ‘on their own terms’ – in places that work for them and potentially giving parents the opportunity to talk to current students about their experiences.
  3. Target specific groups: widening participation departments already target disadvantaged or underrepresented groups, however, effective targeting of parents should include a needs analysis and a consideration of cultural factors. Research finds that where schools consider that some parents are ‘hard to reach’, in actuality attempts to engage them have not done enough to address their specific needs. Universities should avoid falling into the same trap and should steer clear of labelling groups or parents as generically ‘hard to reach.’ Instead, they should tailor activities to different groups of parents’ needs.
  4. Encourage cross-university support: parental engagement should be seen as a key part of widening participation activities and staff from across the university should be involved in activities.
  5. Empower parents to ‘overcome disadvantage’: a “deficit-discourse” whereby disadvantages groups are discussed in a negative or reproachful way is all too common discussing groups that need extra support or experience material deprivation and can hinder engagement and alienate families. Universities need to avoid using language which stigmatises or blames parents for ‘disadvantage’ and must recognise that parents and families have assets that can be tapped into, despite the material conditions some have to work against. Universities should acknowledge and build on these assets whilst supporting parents to develop the knowledge and skills they need to support their children.
  6. Ensure interactions are sustained, multifaceted and focused on relationships: engagement with parents should be multifaceted: universities should meet with parents multiple times, at different venues with a variety of activities. Sustained and varied interaction helps build relationships with parents, which in turn makes parents comfortable and allows universities to understand parents’ needs and tailor their outreach.
  7. Evaluate outreach activities: careful research exploring the effectiveness of outreach that involves parents will help to build an evidence-informed approach for future activities.

Parents are keen to be involved, and those from target widening participation backgrounds such as parents who haven’t been to university are likely to need extra support and information. If universities are serious about attracting and retaining students from underrepresented backgrounds they must recognise their parents as key stakeholders and engage with them effectively.


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