Publication Details

Chenhall, R., Holmes, C., Lea, T., Senior, K. & Wegner, A. (2011). Parent-school engagement: exploring the concept of 'invisible' Indigenous parents in three north Australian school communities. Darwin, Australia: The Northern Istitute.


This report explores school-­‐parent engagement in three town-­‐based schools in the Northern Territory of Australia. Undertaken over a three year period between 2008 and 2010, the research team worked in partnership with The Smith Family and participating schools— Karama Primary School in Darwin; Moulden Park Primary School in Palmerston; and MacFarlane Primary School in Katherine-to explore what parents have to say about the schools that their Indigenous children attend and about education more broadly.

The research applied an exploratory case study approach using a mix of ethnographic and interview techniques. We observed children, parents and school environments; interviewed parents, teachers, policy personnel and school based staff; and conducted focus group sessions with key stakeholders. In-depth interviews were conducted with 48 parents and/or carers, 9 policy officers and 26 educators. The questions we asked all participants in this study probed three key questions: What does engagement mean? Why is it important? How is it achieved?

Our research revealed a dissonance between what parents expect their level of engagement with school should be and what the policy community assumes about the importance of engagement. Suffice to say, parents’ visible engagement with schools and the importance they place on education are different matters. The parents who were most visible were not necessarily engaging for reasons of academic advancement or schooling success but over concerns about bullying or truancy or social trauma. And the parents who were least visible were not necessarily marginalised from the school but believed that the school was addressing the education of their children, and that the leadership of educators could be depended upon to get the job done, rendering forthright ‘engagement’ unnecessary. In short, non-visibility is an exaggerated problem. Non-visibility does not equate with lack of interest or lack of participation in schooling.

The key message from this research is that to improve outcomes for Indigenous students, schools and policy makers need to consider a re-focus of their engagement efforts on one aspect more intensely: namely, how to help parents invest in the cognitive and emotional development of their children toward academic attainment. It is clear that the schools in our study are doing an extraordinary job with stretched resources to meet the challenges of educating socially disadvantaged young people. It is clear that engagement has a place in improved outcomes, but more focused methods for encouraging parental responsibility and involvement in all aspects of their children's education are required.

The efforts of the school to dismantle barriers between home and school are certainly reflected in the praise parents have for their respective school and school-­‐based personnel. Within the complexity of everyday life, parents think that schools are doing a good job. They separate the school from their everyday worlds, and do not expect the school to be part of their worlds more than it is. Parents are committed to the idea of education and register their support in various ways, including getting their children to attend as often as feasible.

The flipside of this is that parents, whilst clearly valuing education, cannot prioritise education over the demands of family and the ongoing need to respond to crisis situations in everyday life; and rely on, or expect, a division of educational labour whereby teacher expertise and schools generally are trusted to do the job. This reduced expectation of the role of the school and limited interference in decisions around teaching approaches, restricting their own interventions to responding when their children are in trouble, is part of what some might call ‘low parental expectations’, but as this report reveals, both educator and parent pragmatism is more complex again.

Among other things, the policy promise that attendance is the single most important key to school success has proved misleading. At the national policy level, engagement has been recommended as one of the top priorities for increasing participation and retention in schools, on the underlying premise that there is a positive relationship between attendance, employment and socio-economic gain. However, just as under-­‐performance in education does not reduce to participation, nor does ‘engagement’ alone target the ways in which parents can prepare their children for academic success.

Further, advances in educational outcomes of children in this study depend on shifting the responsibility from educators alone to include not only parents, but also the different tiers of government and their departments-such as housing, health, families, employment, arts, sport-that respond to the social and economic circumstances of families and the worlds that they occupy. Schools cannot be held solely responsible for undoing compounding regimes of inequality in the wider society.