My last research piece in these pages looked at the difficulties facing schools when addressing a whole-community issue (fitness and obesity), but what are the challenges when trying to get the community to support a school issue?

The research on parental engagement has been fairly consistent over the past few years. It is clear that parents who engage in their children’s education have a positive effect. The challenge for schools is converting the unengaged parents, and the evidence is that this is hard to do. A review published by the Nuffield Foundation in 2013 found it wasn’t possible to tell whether programmes designed to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s education raised attainment or not, because none had been properly evaluated.

More recently, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) conducted a review of the evidence on parental engagement. Their survey of around 150 schools found they were using more than 35 different parental engagement interventions. Clearly it is important for schools to know what their impact might be. Evaluations also provide useful information on the challenges schools might face when developing their own approaches, and the scale of the impact they might reasonably expect.

The EEF has carried out several trials of parental engagement interventions, giving rise to a mixed bag of results. Some failed altogether to engage parents or change outcomes. More positively, Families and Schools Together (FAST) was successful at engaging parents and produced a positive impact on social-emotional outcomes, but none on student attainment. Supporting Parents on Kids Education in Schools (SPOKES) had no impact on reading or social and emotional outcomes overall, though there was some evidence of a positive longer-term impact on boys’ maths. Texting Parents improved children’s maths (and possibly English) attainment, and reduced absenteeism. Altogether though, the positive impacts of these interventions were usually small.

The aim is to change parents’ behaviour in order to influence their children’s

The EEF review illustrates the difficulties presented by parental engagement. The aim is to change parents’ behaviour in order to influence their children’s. Given that it can be challenging enough to change children’s behaviour directly, going through an intermediary – especially one who may have a difficult existing relationship with schools and authority figures – is likely to be even more challenging.

Based on this evidence, schools should consider four key questions when thinking about their approach to parental engagement:

What issue are you hoping to address?

The sequence of steps that will see parents being the route to addressing this issue may mean that working directly with children offers a more plausible answer, requiring less time and fewer resources. For example, offering free school breakfasts may be a better solution for getting children to school on time, ready to learn, than working with parents to achieve the same result.

Is this an issue parental engagement can solve?

The EEF review points out the areas where the evidence supporting parental involvement is stronger or weaker. In the early years for example, the evidence supports reading with children and creating a supportive home learning environment. For those in school, the evidence supports home–school partnerships and parents’ interest in their children’s academic activities, but there is no positive relationship between parents helping with homework and children’s academic achievement.

Is it a whole-school approach?

No matter what specific issue you are focusing on, parents will still see this through the lens of their entire interaction with the school (and, arguably, previous schools).

What relationship do parents and the wider community have with school?

Everything you attempt will be influenced by this. The research on the impact of using texts to influence behaviour shows that the nature of the existing relationship is important. If the texts come from an authority figure they have never heard of or don’t trust, they are less likely to be convinced.

Recent research has enabled us to see more clearly the challenges and potential benefits of parental engagement. It requires a thorough, thought-through approach, and the benefits are likely to be hard-won. Nonetheless, the evidence and the advice is increasingly available to help schools develop, implement, and evaluate effective plans for impactful parental engagement.