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Community engagement Kafkaesque in NSW Education Department

By Philip Roberts - posted Tuesday, 17 February 2015

It seems rather exciting news that NSW schools will be using federal funding, originally earmarked to support independent public schools, to enhance community engagement. Indeed as the NSW minister states 'Schools will receive an average of $9,500 to undertake community engagement activities that are appropriate to their context' and that the 'funding will be extremely useful to foster partnerships between schools, parents and the local community to support decision making that reflects the best interests of students'.

But what exactly does the NSW Department mean by community engagement? The language seems to suggest a genuine partnership between schools and communities, however experience makes me hesitate.

Early last year I was told by the principal of my children's school that the NSW department ran a program for Principals and school executives called 'Communicating and engaging with the community'. Indeed the Principal and Deputy Principal had just been to a training day. This was of great interests as how schools engage all parents in educational decision-making is something we often discuss. I thought it would be useful to try to find out a little about this program as a parent of students in a NSW Public School. Furthermore given I teach a unit drawing on sociology and related to the importance of positive school-community relations I thought it might be helpful if my students use similar research to a program ran by one of the major employers.


Research clearly indicates that positive parental engagement in student learning leads to improvements in academic achievement, wellbeing, school completion and post secondary pathways to mention just a few. There does appear to be some inconsistencies in what is meant by parental engagement. However the evidence appears to come down to the positive impacts being observed when parents are involved in their students learning. That is parental engagement isn't only involvement or participation, notions that suggest activities that happen only in the school such as volunteering, but instead includes a role in students learning.

Interestingly though, while these definitions make use of concepts like 'partnerships' and 'shared responsibilities' they, and the related research on its benefits, still appear to position to the parent as acting under the guidance of the school. There doesn't appear to be much discussion of the school working with and from parents' understandings, interests and concerns for their students. It's a subtle semantic orientation, but a significant one.

In the context of equity work in education this is a rather odd. For decades one of the key foundational principles in working with students from backgrounds that traditionally don't succeed in schools is bridging the gap between the assumptions and interests of the school world and students home world. One simple thing we do here is make sure that teachers understand the lives of their students and their aspirations and then start their topics with examples their particular students can relate to before moving on to more abstract examples. After all not all students have the same social or cultural assumptions as their teachers.

In this context, and all the evidence about successful engagement improving schooling the NSW Ministers announcement seems positive. I was looking forward to discussing the program with my children's Principal and using aligned material with my own students. To cut a long story short I'm still waiting and received a stark lesson on what engagement seems to mean. My attempt to find out about the program, its background, message, and the research it was based on became farcical and has descended to a freedom of information request.

It all began when I initially contacted the officer responsible for the 'Communicating and engaging with the community' program with a few general questions about the program and specifically what research it drew upon and the strategies it suggested. I was then somewhat dismayed to receive the reply, apparently endorsed by the officers' director, that the program was 'not relevant to community members and P & C's'. I also had to give the name of the school my children attend before I even received that response, which the principal was for some reason cc'd into.

After querying the response and pondering the notion that such a program was not 'relevant', given the NSW Education Act and the consistent findings of the DET's own equity projects, I was told, by the same officer after consulting their director, that it was designed specifically for Principal's and Executives to 'better engage with the school community'. How such a program about engaging the community is not relevant to the community still has me perplexed. I feel as though I'm living inside an episode an episode of the ABC comedy Utopia. I accept that the program is, as I was informed, a train the trainer approach. However, I still don't understand why the origin of the research it is based on and its general approach cannot be shared. This approach seems at odds with what I would imagine the program would be about, as well as being at odds with my understanding of public education - that being about schools and communities working together.


To try the next rung in the hierarchy and express my dismay I then contacted the ministers office. Conveniently the correspondence was sent to the director of the section overseeing the program who had previously been consulted. I received a half page reply that did not answer any of the explicit questions I raised and contained a dot point overview of topics covered, including 'Understanding the importance of communication and engagement, Conducting parent research in your community – understanding their needs and Consultative decision making' and was thanked for wanting to provide feedback and support to my local school. Again the irony of being told its about understanding the community but the community can't know about it was dumbfounding.

At this impasse it seemed like the next step was to try the Department Secretary to see if I could get my questions answered. Again conveniently it was referred to the same director I had mentioned in my correspondence hadn't answered anything I asked. This directors subsequent reply, that began with 'I note that I have already provided you with information', went on to re-iterate what was not an answer to the questions. I was reminded that 'The NSW government (through Local Schools, Local Decisions) has a focus on supporting schools to more effectively communicate and engage with their communities.' However the rhetoric here was starkly at odds with my experience to date. Perhaps even more interestingly I was also told that the material 'would be of little value to those undertaking their initial teacher education.' Again curious given standard seven of the National Professional Standards: 'Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community'.

This interaction seems at odds with the intent of public education of communities and schools working together. The idea that parents are of primary importance in a students education, even that P&C's should have a role in informing school educational decision making are all in the NSW Education ACT.

While the Act doesn't explicitly say anything about sharing information, the principles upon which it is written, The Carrick Report that preceded it, it's second reading speech and that of its amendment all refer strongly to building stronger connections between schools and communities and the importance of this in effective education. Then there is the simple issue of taxpayers having access to the operation of the public sector and programs run with their money.

Looking at the circumstance cynically, the lack of openness could suggest that the program is really about public relations and controlling what the community hears about the school rather than engaging them genuinely and openly. Of concern then is that a google search of the responsible officer and director reveal their specialisation in multimedia communication and apparent lack of any educational background. I am led to wonder if the program is based on any research at all or really just a schools PR program. If so what should I make of the Ministers announcement of more funds to support community engagement? Is it really more funds to help schools tell parents and communities what they have decided or is it about building processes for genuinely collaborative decision making? I really don't know as I can't find out the most basic information. What I have experienced reinforces the power dynamic that we know has divided schools and communities in the past, and that I would hope is not the message of the program in question. If I can't find such information out, especially given my relatively privileged position, what hope do other community members have?

It seems in the more critical research on parental engagement that there are indeed two types of parental engagement; an acceptable forms of parental engagement that is essentially about accepting the schools educational authority and an unacceptable engagement which relates to trying to have an influence on the schools education programs. The acceptable form positions parents as consumers of the schools expertise and as a good helper (e.g. Volunteering). Here Engagement in learning is as directed by the school as the arbiter and decision maker – the school, and or the state, holds the authority over what and how students learn and successful parents follow as directed. The unacceptable form is more a parent who wants to be involved in the educational decision making and treated as an equal. In this later form parents dare to feel they might have valuable insight into how their children learn, what interests them and what they want out of education. While it's good to know I might fit into a research stereotype, it is concerning that in true Orwellian form the language of consultation is being misused and counter productive power dynamics being reinforced.

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About the Author

Philip Roberts is Assistant Professor (Curriculum Studies) at the University of Canberra. He has taught in NSW Public High Schools and worked in remote and isolated schools. He has conducted research into staffing these schools culminating in the report in 2004 Staffing an empty schoolhouse: attracting and retaining teachers in rural, remote and isolated communities (PDF 1.16MB).

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