Community engagement changes schools for the better.

Schools can help to change communities for the better.

Schools and communities working together can radically transform the futures of young people.

The language that we use to describe the relationship between schools, families, and communities can be very informative about our attitudes and how we perceive the role of schools. Examples of frequently heard phrases include: ‘the school at the heart of the community’, ‘parental involvement’, ‘the school as a safe haven’, ‘home–school links’, ‘parent assistants or volunteers’, and ‘parental support’. In all such phrases, and you can probably think of many more, the school is seen as the centre, which parents are expected to support as peripheral participants.

The emphasis in such perspectives is that it is the role of the school to educate the child, and the role of the parent to support the school. Such school-centric perspectives are in danger of presenting teachers as elite professionals who know best, whilst parents should come to the school to learn what they should be doing – and, better still, to help as volunteers, to raise money, to become ‘more involved’.

The consumer model that emphasises parental choice has not been helpful in altering this school-centric perception. It does not actually invite parents to contribute to what is provided by the school. Their agency lies in choosing between predetermined options, rather than in active participation. Their ultimate alternative would be choosing another school, which for many is not an available or realistic option.

So we have to ask: engagement in what? What do parents want to be involved in? Alternatively, from the perspective of the school: if the role of schools is to promote the learning, progress, and achievement of students as whole people, how do they engage with parents and carers to do this holistically?

That implies school leaders and staff need a much deeper understanding of what parents and families think, and how to work with them, for increased engagement in learning to happen. To really engage parents and community members, we must be prepared to listen to their views as the basis for further discussions and to find a common purpose, recognising that initially this may be uncomfortable and difficult for all. But only genuine family and community engagement in learning can form the basis for building meaningful learning cultures in communities.

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