By Dr Sandra Webster
The days of Covid-19 and online learning have brought about a renewed focus on the ways schools operate in partnership with families.
An ‘open door policy’ is often cited in the many conversations I’ve had with teachers over the years when asking them to describe how they approach partnership with parents.
While the intent of this policy approach may be one of openness and availability, the relationship needed to underscore a true partnership cannot be contained in or described by a policy, which ultimately serves to distance parents by legislation.
Both educators and families widely accept that the concept of a partnership between the home and school is something important that enhances our students’ learning opportunities and consistently viewed as positive (Lau & Ng, 2019).
A stronger parent voice has emerged in education. I suggest it is part of the global move towards democratisation and decentralisation. So, our attention to developing an effective partnership is even more important.
Are you a person who Googles your symptoms before you go to the doctor, intending to have a dialogue around your illness and medication rather than just being told what is wrong with you and what prescription will cure you? You will have an idea of how people now operate and expect to be involved in decisions regarding their children that previously were left up to the ‘experts’.
A definition of partnership
Firstly, it may be useful to define what a partnership is.
I like the following definition. Although dated, it is still relevant to this discussion.
McDonald (1999) writes that a partnership is a long-term cooperative relationship based on trust, the goal of which is to achieve shared goals.
In this partnership, there is considerable two-way sharing of information and joint problem-solving.
This definition picks out three components that my research confirms as vital to forming, enacting, and maintaining a genuine family-school partnership: Shared power, trust, and communication (Webster, 2020).
Each may seem self-evident. And while educators and parents may agree that a family and school working together enhances student learning outcomes, it is not always reflected in how families are treated in our schools, nor in how they are allowed or able to participate within them.
So how, then, does each element apply to the context of the family-school partnership?
The concept of power is integral to all our relationships, and the idea of sharing this with parents can be a difficult one. Two types of power are relevant to this discussion on the family-school partnership.
The first is positional power. Positional power is the type that comes from rank, title, or status.
It is evident in a top-down management style which can be characterised by micromanagement, a low trust environment and a reduced sense of autonomy by those who are the recipients of this approach.
Positional power is like a hammer: effective in the short term but blunt and damaging in the long term.
Operating through a relational power approach is a much more effective way to establish a partnership with school families.
This is the authority that comes from the trust and respect of others. Those who operate within this realm feel comfortable enough not to invoke positional power unless necessary.
It involves a shared history, time, and emotional involvement, recognising the knowledge the family brings into the educational conversation around their children and allowing them the opportunity to share this with us.
While it is true that we have the professional knowledge that parents may lack, they possess other knowledge about the child that is valuable and fills in gaps in our understanding.
When both sources of knowledge are shared, recognised, and valued, the family-school partnership is enacted.
This quote from one of my research participants sums up the concept of trust beautifully.
‘And we were saying “trust us”, but I think if you have to say that, probably you haven’t got their trust … If you have to say “please trust me”, then it’s a bit late’ (Webster, 2020).
For schools and educators, there is a temptation to assume that parents trust us. And they do … to an extent.
However, to fully gain the trust of parents, we must show ourselves to be trustworthy.
Trust is important because it is what holds schools focused on continual improvement together (Bryk & Schneider, 2003).
It is important to note that good relationships and trust do not compensate for poorly trained teachers, bad pedagogical approaches, or unworkable school structures (Bryk & Schneider, 2003).
Trust as a concept is not a whole on its own, it is the amalgamation of several components:
- personal regard for others
The focus of family-school partnerships needs to be on consistent and regular communication, especially on listening.
The environment needs to allow and encourage participants to speak freely, honestly, and authentically (Theunissen & Wan Noordin, 2012).
To do this, viewing dialogue as a process rather than an outcome is essential, and is also necessary to build relationships (Theunissen & Wan Noordin, 2012).
It is a reflective learning process where listening is as important as speaking, and where participants seek to understand another’s perspective and assumptions (Garmston & Wellman, 2018).
Effective dialogue assumes that participants:
- act authentically
- allow change to occur while focussing on the future
- collaborate, share their insights and knowledge
- are present throughout the dialogic process (Theunissen & Wan Noordin)
However, be warned. Engaging in genuine dialogue contains risks because there cannot be a focus on a preconceived outcome.
Dialogue, therefore, is risky and unpredictable as it may result in a change that was not anticipated (Theunissen & Wan Noordin).
In summary, a family-school partnership is so much more than a policy, even one that has at its core a positive intent.
While an ‘open door policy’ has long been the way that many schools and educational organisations describe their interactions and approach to families, it is time to move to an approach that reflects the global move towards democratisation and decentralisation by sharing power, creating genuine trust, and engaging in dialogic communication.
By doing this, educators will move beyond an outdated approach to the way they engage with parents, towards a contemporary one that reflects the times we live in.
Dr Sandra Webster is an experienced international school head. Her PhD thesis examined how schools and families work together (or not!) to create viable, authentic partnerships. From this research, she developed a new model of partnership, which will be the basis of her book ‘Creating Family-School Partnerships: From Talking To towards Learning With’, which will be published by Routledge in 2023.
Bryk, A., & Schneider B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. American Sociological Associations‘ Rose series in sociology. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (3rd ed.). London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lau, Y. H. E., & Ng, M. L. (2019). Are they ready for family–school partnership? Perspectives of kindergarten principals, teachers and parents. Children and Youth Services Review, 99, 10–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.01.019
McDonald, F. (1999). The importance of power in partnership relationships. Journal of General Management, 25(1), 43–59. doi:10.1177/030630709902500103
Theunissen, P., & Wan Noordin, W. N. (2012). Revisiting the concept―dialogue in public relations. Public Relations Review, 38(1) (2012), 5–13. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.006
Webster, S.J. (2020). Moving from “talking to” towards “learning with”: Stories of international schools’ partnerships with parents in Hong Kong. (Doctoral dissertation). Swinburn University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved from https://researchbank.swinburne.edu.au/file/7945caea-4c40-448f-9dd2-20a24d51b6c3/1/sandra_webster_thesis.pdf