By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education)


To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, nothing in this world can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and school homework. It doesn’t have the best reputation, but homework and other out of hours school activities can offer an opportunity for parents and guardians* to enhance their engagement with their children’s education, and their relationship with the school.

The research on the benefits for children when their parents are engaged with their education is unanimously positive. Studies show that children with engaged parents are more likely to have better classroom behaviour, motivation to learn and higher grades among other things. Helping with homework, attending school events, providing a home environment conducive to studying, setting high aspirations and having a positive parent-teacher relationship all count as engagement.

Setting high aspirations can be particularly relevant to science learning. Most children have developed a positive or negative attitude towards science by the age of seven. In the context of the gender stereotypes around some science subjects, particularly physics, this can be a problem. Research shows a strong correlation between parents’ attitudes towards physics and their children’s attitudes, meaning that if parents demonstrate belief in their children that they can pursue science at school, they may be more likely to feel confident in doing so.

Barriers to engagement

However, as with so many things, the opportunities to engage are not equitable.

The Sutton Trust, a charity which champions social mobility from a child’s earliest years, has published a report looking at how differences in a family’s socio-economic background can impact these opportunities. The report reads:

“Children may not take part in extracurricular activities for a variety of reasons…For students in areas without good access to public transport, pupils may be unable to take part if their parents can’t take them home after school transport has ended, something which may be more of a problem for parents who do shift work, or who do not own a car.”

As well as access to resources (The Sutton Trust report also identified that more affluent parents can hire private tutors to help their children with homework), there are other factors at play. A study into school engagement with families from ethnic minority backgrounds found that language and cultural differences were among the largest barriers to parental engagement. Parents whose first language isn’t English found this affected their confidence in communicating with their children’s school.

Confidence, not just in communicating with teachers, but also with children about their education is key. The research on attitudes and beliefs around education discussed earlier goes both ways; parents who have low self-efficacy tend not to engage as much with their children’s education. Low self-efficacy in adults can come from feeling inadequacy due to limited or unhappy experiences of their own education.

Breaking the cycle

These barriers can create a trap. Children whose parents haven’t had equal opportunities to engage with their schooling may fall behind their more privileged peers, and grow up to share their parents’ feelings of inadequacy and/or lack of access to resources. It’s essential that schools take steps to actively engage families and mitigate the barriers where possible.

This is just what Dr Rose Lerner, a teacher and science leader at St Peter’s Church of England Primary School Henfield did when organising events for British Science Week 2022.

*Find more information about the book Rose talks about here: Look up!  by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola   

St Peter’s received a Kick Start grant from the British Science Association which was used to fund a family science night, and a home science kit given to every pupil. We spoke to Dr Lerner about the events she arranged and how she took steps to include families.

“We tried to make the advertising (for the family science night) really like ‘You don’t need to know anything about science to join in’” she said, “and we sent the advert first out to our pupil premium families and after a few days we sent it out to everybody else.”

Dr Lerner also organised a photo competition as part of British Science Week, using Kick Start funds to buy prizes. Children were encouraged to use items from the home science kits to think of a question they have about science and take a photo of their experiment. She explained how she hoped it would provide an even playing field for all families to take part:

“When we’ve done competitions… it feels like quite a high bar for entry or that you’re more likely to win if your parents know about science and can help you more, but anyone can ask a question and take a photo and that’s what we wanted to see…the children having a really nice time at home talking about science.”

We asked Dr Lerner what advice she would give to other schools looking to encourage parental engagement, she reiterated the importance of creating welcoming environment:

“I would say make it really low bar that the parents don’t feel like they need to know anything (about science) and don’t feel like they’re going to be tested on anything, so it’s really non-intimidating, because a fair number of parents will have not had positive experiences themselves at school with science, so you should really try to make it easy to access.”

All parents want their children to enjoy and flourish at school, and should be made to feel comfortable engaging with their education and school events, regardless of their background. Schools like St Peter’s are leading the charge in breaking the cycle, by recognising that education doesn’t end at the home-time bell.   

*’Parents’ will be used throughout to refer to a child’s guardians, but encompasses all parent/guardian/caregiver arrangements