Family Matters: The role of parents in children’s educational attainment

The impact of parents and the family environment on outcomes in education is often neglected in policy and research.

By contrast, popular discussion of education might place too much emphasis on the role of parents compared to that of schools and teachers.

Even when the role of parents and the family environment is in the scope of policy and research, there are challenging questions about disentangling the effect of family income and parents’ qualifications from engagement per se; and how to support parents in being more engaged.

It is all too easy either to end up criticising families who are already living in tough circumstances; or to advocate measures that involve the government reaching too far into family life.

Our aim in this paper is to ask how important is parental engagement in education; identify its impact separate from that of family income or parents’ qualifications; and consider how we can best overcome social inequalities in parental engagement. Our policy discussion pertains to how parents can best be supported to engage in children’s education.

This is the fourth research paper produced by the SMF’s cross-party Commission on Inequality in Education; and will inform our final policy recommendations, due in the early part of 2017. The commission is chaired by Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP; and the other members are Rebecca Allen, Suella Fernandes MP, Sam Freedman and Stephen Kinnock MP.

This paper is inspired by recent initiatives such as the Parent Engagement Project, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, and run by research teams from the University of Bristol and Harvard University. The project involved parents being sent text messages from their children’s school with the aim of increasing parental engagement in learning. After a one-year trial involving 36 secondary schools, the project found small positive impacts on maths and English, and a reduction in absenteeism.

That project is emblematic of the higher focus on parental engagement that is seen in many high- performing schools or schools seeking to make significant improvements. Other techniques – albeit unproven through equivalent research evidence – include stronger parental engagement on attendance and timekeeping; and the use of parent contracts when children are admitted to a school.

For the purposes of this paper, we use the latest wave of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), taken when children were 11. This allows us to identify the impact of parental engagement on test scores at age 11, as well as to control for characteristics such as parental income and qualifications. We are limited to observing the impact of the forms of parental engagement recorded in the survey.

Previous evidence suggests that parental engagement can have the greatest effects when it occurs early. Therefore we also look at indicators of engagement at age 5, when the child has just started school. Our indicator of attainment is a standard verbal reasoning test conducted as part of the MCS at age 11. This is the best indicator of attainment available in the dataset.

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