Parents are Power – ERNAPE Conference in Gdansk

ERNAPE, the European Research Network About Parents in Education organised its 12th conference in Gdansk, Poland on 18-20 September 2019 with the title Parent Engagement as Power: Empowering Children, Schools and Societies. Parents International brought not only the voice of parents to the event, but also had the opportunity to present 4 research papers we did with partners in projects on various topics. The highlight of the conference was a keynote presentation by Carmel Borg from Malta on a teacher training programme that enables professionals to work with parents from backgrounds different from their own. You will find below some other highlights of the conference. Parents International was represented by Brigitte Haider, Chair of the Supervisory Board and Eszter Salamon, our Director.

In general we need to mention that

  • in most of the sessions and research the terms parental involvement – parental engagement – parental participation were used indiscriminately without clear definitions. In contrast to Carmel Borg’s approach, parents are only recognised as an object of research, not as partners, social actors, trainers in teacher education or experts in education. One presenter even identified parental involvement as a parenting styles.
  • preparing teachers for home-school-partnerships is either a cross-cutting issue without much emphasis in compulsory teacher education courses or reduced to some token lessons.
  • child’s rights were scarcely taken into consideration in most of the presented studies. In some cases it even seemed they were even neglected in everyday school life. This might be due to the USA-orientation of the network where child rights are not provided and protected by law.
  • a whole school approach including all relevant stakeholders – including the students themselves – in the learning environment of school was not even mentioned once.

Carmel Borg’s presentation highlighted the need for pre-service and also in-service teachers to meet parents from various backgrounds, and presented how their training is supporting these professionals to change their attitudes and methods to accept and tackle parent diversity. The ultimate goal is to engage all in all aspect of education, very much in line with the approach IPA is promoting on open schools. It is also their goal when implementing this programme to sensitise trainee teachers to accept parents as a resource, protagonists in education, contributors and co-investigators when aiming at improving education. This approach is unique in organised, formal teacher education, namely to not talk about, but talk with parents.

The founder and, in a way, reference point of the research network, Joyce Epstein (USA) was talking about harnessing and utilising ‘pent-up’ parent energy, energy accumulated and on the verge of breaking out. Her approach – in line with her partnership framework – was focusing on ways to release it in a way that paves the way towards student success within policies in place, but in the reality of the global learning crisis we should also think of ways to harness this energy for transforming educations institutions, systems and curricula.

An interesting presentation by Judith Suissa (UK) made a review of literature on what is considered good parenting, especially in view of an uncertain future. In her opinion, parenting trends of the near future have shifted focus. While after the 2nd World War parenting advice was primarily on building moral values, the current mainstream is about developing psychological skills such as resilience without moral or ethical considerations. The ultimate goal would obviously be a healthy balance.

Given that the hosting country, Poland is currently under a right-wing, nationalist government and also has a long tradition of non-inclusive attitudes, a number of local speakers presented papers, including research around this topic. The most important messages were that parents wishing to provide quality, inclusive education very much feel alone, while there is no research data on teacher attitudes about inclusion. Sadly, children of mobile parents, returning from other EU countries, having attended schools in Western Europe, are often excluded just like special education needs or disabled children.

Gill Crozier (UK) presented research on minority parents who are very much engaged in their children’s learning and schooling. Her research clearly shows that our approach to mentoring in the Parent’r’us project is highly valid, namely that for minority inclusion teachers need at least as much mentoring and support as parents. Even in the UK, where parental engagement practices are much more developed than in most other countries in Europe, these parents feel they are treated like children, and more often than not they are considered to be troublesome or too pushy.

In Iceland the implementation of GDPR has led to a decrease in the family-school communication, because it was a wide-spread solution to use of social media as communication tool, but general use was reduced due to an awareness raising campaign on private and sensitive data and severe threats of punishment for abuse of these tools for school staff. As an extremety, in some schools, children’s drawings were even removed from the walls, before the school was opened for adults’ lessons in the afternoons/evenings, clearly showing some of the issues around GDPR.

A Polish study on the interest of the state in parental participation in school dealt with the satisfaction of parents with their participation. In the discussion the term satisfaction was identified as not really useful and was suggested to be replaced by expectations. First the diversity of the expectations of parents should be collected and in a second phase then found out how far these expectations are/were met by the school.

We could contribute to some research presented that is still work-in-progress. The host of the next ERNAPE Conference, the University of Groeningen presented research on bullying, but they have not yet considered bullying by teachers, parents or other trusted adults. In an extensive research on the use of a dedicated and centralised e-platform for parent-teacher communication in Finland data protection concerns have not yet been explored while the service provider handles big data. In another presentation on the importance of social skills in institutional caring we managed to identify that there should be a shift from subject training to an extended development of social skills in teacher education, which was highly appreciated by the participants

Probably one of the most interesting discussions of the event was an informal discussion with a member of the ERNAPE Steering Committee. It was somewhat surprising to hear that even a well-known researcher of the parental involvement field believes that leaders of parent organisations have no expertise that entitles them to make professional statements. This reinforced our decision to base our work on research rather than claiming any representativeness.

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