Opening School Gates for Parents

A Western Sydney University team is examining the barriers to parental participation in their child’s education.

Children tend to achieve more when their parents are involved with schooling. Western Sydney University researchers have now published recommendations for improving how schools and parents from diverse communities interact.

Parent engagement encompasses everything from active participation in learning activities to attendance at school events or simply being up to date on their child’s progress. “With growing awareness that parents’ contributions make a difference, there has been interest at the government level to strengthen engagement,” explains study lead, Associate Professor Christine Woodrow, from Western’s Centre for Educational Research.

The government, in partnership with the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), commissioned researchers from Western’s Centre for Educational Research to conduct focus groups on parental engagement. Woodrow focused on low socioeconomic families whereas Associate Professor Loshini Naidoo focused on culturally and linguistically diverse families, and Professor Margaret Somerville focused on Aboriginal families.

The team found that parents of low socioeconomic status frequently felt insecure about being involved in their child’s education, especially if they had been unsuccessful in school themselves. “Schools have a tendency to reinforce the insecurity. The research indicated that the only interaction that some parents have with schools are phone calls for their children’s bad behaviour,” Woodrow explains. “The implication here is that schools should establish rapport with the parents as soon as the children progress into primary school, so that they have grounds for better communication.”

The challenges differed considerably for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) families. “Most parents from CALD backgrounds felt that there was a cultural mismatch between the teachers and students, and a lack of effort to develop intercultural sensitivity,” says Naidoo. The lack of a common language was also a hurdle.

On the other hand, for Aboriginal parents, there was a discord with schools in the understanding about learning, one issue was the loss of cultural authority. “For Aboriginal parents, the framework for learning must be based in Aboriginal culture, with land, language, history and story playing an integral role. They also regard learning as lifelong and themselves as the child’s first teachers,” says Somerville.

The team translated their findings into a series of recommendations at the policy level, including the need for professional learning, training and resources for parents and educators that support children from low socioeconomic, cultural and linguistically diverse, and Aboriginal backgrounds. “A clear message from the study was that school administrators are genuinely interested in getting parents involved,” says Woodrow. “A challenge now is overcoming the lack of school resources to foster relationships with parents.”

Need to know

  • Children achieve more when parents are involved in their schooling.
  • Western researchers investigated obstacles to parental engagement for those of low socioeconmic, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD), or Indigenous backgrounds.
  • They released recommendations aimed at increasing engagement.

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Christine Woodrow

Christine Woodrow is Associate Professor in the School of Education and Deputy Director of the Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney. Her most recent research has been focused on developing sustainable models of pedagogical land community leadership with a particular focus on early childhood literacy and numeracy pedagogies and parent engagement in vulnerable contexts.   Her research also includes early childhood policy analysis, transnational investigations of professional identities, the place of visual research methodologies in program evaluation and capacity building,  and the nexus between early childhood education and school. Dr Woodrow has been the Australian project leader for an innovative transnational program, Futuro Infantil Hoy in northern Chile for the last 6 years.  Christine’s other current projects include a cross- national study of early childhood professional identity, and family participation in children’s literacy learning. She has been an activist in the early childhood policy arena both nationally and regionally in Australia and has a deep understanding of the early childhood policy context, nationally and internationally. She was a recent keynote speaker at the International IRECE conference in Santiago, Chile and has presented her research in numerous international forums. Christine has been involved in diverse curriculum projects in Australia, including  the development of the early childhood curriculum: National Early Years Learning Framework: Being, Belonging and Becoming. She is also a chief investigator for a study researching curriculum and quality improvement in early childhood in western Sydney.

Previous research includes a 7 country international study of conceptualisations of professionalism in early childhood contexts, school readiness and the role and effectiveness of the supported playgroup model in effective transitions to school.

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Loshini Naidoo

Associate Professor Loshini Naidoo lectures in social justice education at Western Sydney University. She has established a flourishing research profile on equity and access in disadvantaged communities both nationally and internationally. She has authored and edited several books; published peer-review reports, journal articles and book chapters of both national and international repute, established international links with renowned scholars and obtained internal and external research grants. She has made a significant contribution to refugee education as socially just practice/praxis through the lens of forced migration. Her leadership of the Refugee Action Support Program and the National Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools provides a tangible collaborative platform for her work on cross cultural issues in challenging demographics. She has won multiple Australian teaching awards including an international award from Duke University, North Carolina, for her outstanding work as an educator. She studied forced migration at Oxford University and was one of eight distinguished keynote speakers invited by the prestigious Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to speak on refugee education. She served on the NSW refugee resettlement roundtable and her work has been used by the Department of Social Services in its cultural orientation program for newly arrived Syrian refugees.

Meet the Academic | Professor Margaret Somerville

Margaret Somerville is Professor of Education and the Director of the Centre for Educational Research in the School of Education University of Western Sydney.  She is also the Chair of the Greater Western Sydney chapter of the United Nations Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development (one of only four in Australia).

She is currenlty researching and teaching doctoral students in the areas of place and sustainability education and professional learning/organizational development. Margaret is able to connect these fields of research through new theories of space, place and body and adapting her expertise in creative methodologies within the post-human paradigm that link the physical and social sciences, humanities and creative arts.


This research was funded by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth.

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Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.