Iceland - Do parents in Iceland influence school activities as they wish and what factors do they emphasise in their involvement with schools?

In recent years Icelandic discussion has centred on achieving more effective results at the compulsory school level and on providing pupils with the necessary skills for further study and work.

If the school is to meet the increased demands placed on it, the parents and the school must work together, with mutual trust and respect, for the benefit of the child. Encouragement the and good organisation of parental involvement can strengthen the child’s development and education, as is recognised in Icelandic law.

‘The role of the school is to work collectively with the home in order to prepare the pupil for living and working in a democratic society that is constantly developing’. (Act regarding Compulsory Schooling, no. 66/1995)

With this clause in the law, parents have obtained the legal right to express their views on the inner operation of the school.

Given the changed social conditions, parenting conditions have also changed in many respects, including the following factors: insufficient interpersonal relations with adults, the increased influence of the mass media, a shortage of practical experience to cope with the demands of daily living, an uncertainty about moral worth and a lack of experience in practical jobs (Johansen and Kielland 1988:24).

Therefore the school, in its plans for parental involvement, must take into account the changed social conditions of the family in order to facilitate co-operation. For instance, 85.6% of mothers in Iceland with two or more children aged 7-15 now work outside the home ("The Job Market", Statistics Iceland, 1996). Divorce is also common: In Iceland 2,805 children had parents who had divorced between 1991 and 1995 (Statistical Abstract of Iceland, Statistics Iceland, 1997). The result is often a mixed family pattern with a step - or foster parent who also influences the children and their conditions for development.

An important aspect of parental involvement in school activities is to have a clear idea of the aim, the most important factors involved, and the expectations of parents. A review of relevant research reveals the fact that very little has been carried out. The main objective of the present study was therefore to seek the answer to the following questions:

1.1 Method

In order to ascertain parents’ opinions, a survey was carried out in the capital city of Reykjavik in April 1997 of 1/6 of the parents of children in the 3rd grade (221 parents) and 1/6 of the parents of children in the 8th grade (236 parents). The sample was randomly selected from 12 schools. The questionnaire administered included 36 closed questions, 24 of which concerned general school activities and 12 on various aspects in the process of collaboration of home and school. There were also two open-ended questions about the strong and weak sides of parental involvement. The questionnaires were sent home with the children after the study had been carefully explained to the supervisory teachers.

Twelve parents of children in the participating schools were then interviewed. The interviews were half-standardised and, amongst other things, took into consideration the varied emphases of parental involvement. With their permission, the parents’ replies were taped and then typed to facilitate comparison. The tapes and typescripts were then destroyed.

1.2 Results

The conclusions from the questionnaire survey are presented separately from the results of the interviews.

1. Questionnaire results

The objective of the questionnaire was first and foremost to ascertain the general opinions of the parents concerning the schools and their involvement in school activities. Of the total of 457 parents, 322 returned the questionnaires for a response rate of 71%. Age, occupation and education of the parents were recorded, as well as the sex of the child and whether it lived with both parents, mother, father, or others. The main results were as follows:

Table 1. Parents’ opinions of their child’s school

  Always/Often Sometimes/Never
My child:

%

%

Is happy with school

92

8

Is given suitable class material

92

8

Respects his/her teachers

95

5

Says there is good class discipline

71

29

Feels he is harassed in school

2

98

Most parents think that the class material is suitable and that the child respects teachers. We also see that 29% of the parents say that there is sometimes never good discipline in the classroom and 2% feel that their child is harassed in school (table 1).

Table 2. Parents’ opinion of relations with school and staff

 

Yes

No

Don’t know

 

%

%

%

Parents feel welcome

87

0

13

Friendly atmosphere in the school

81

4

15

Collaboration with teachers is easy

89

6

5

Active participation in parents’ involvement

39

58

3

Changing teachers is common

28

72

0

Child receives varied course work

76

14

10

Sufficient supervision during recess

21

35

44

Given good info about school activities

678

18

14

Interviews scheduled at convenient times

70

26

4

Most of the parents feel they are welcome to the school. They also say that the atmosphere is friendly and collaboration with teachers is easy. 28% of parents think that changing teachers is common, 35% think there is not sufficient supervision during recess and 26% do not think the interviews are scheduled at convenient times (table 2).

Fig. 1. Parents’ opinions on importance participating in parents’ councils, strong school-parent relationships, and that parents assist children with their homework.

As shown in fig. l 96% of the parents considered it very important or important that parents assist their children with their homework. Furthermore 84% felt it very/somewhat important that a strong relationship be established between parents and schools, and 82% that is very/somewhat important to emphasise parental participation in parents´ councils.

Fig. 2. Parents’ opinions on importance of informational material, visits during class hours, and course for parents.

A full 98% of the parents considered it very or somewhat important to receive informational material from the schools (fig. 2).

Figure 3 compares the four most important factors, in the opinion of the parents surveyed, in parental involvement with the school.

The above four factors were selected out of fourteen factors given in the questionnaire about parent´s involvement with the school (fig. 3).

1.2.1 Interview results

The parents ranked first the collaboration concerning their own child, followed by involvement concerning the class as a whole. They ranked third the school administration and then the school as a whole. These results are congruent with the division of responses in the other Nordic countries, for example, Denmark, where parental involvement was considered applicable in the same four areas (Mogens 1991). The following response from the present study was typical:

‘Most of the dealings with the school are naturally about my own child, and we have met on parents’ evenings where, among other things, the social relations in the class have been discussed. And then, of course, school administration and the teaching come into all of this.

Some parents expressed a consumer’s point of view. Others, in keeping with the theory of Hughes, et al. (1994:8-10), felt that the school should be a service institution.

‘Yes, I have to admit that the school does not always meet the demands of parents or the needs of children like a little boy I know, and he is hardly lacking in intelligence. The school, all the same, has done nothing for him. It isn’t possible to say that these schools look on themselves as a service institution. I think people should be able to choose the school. ‘ (F-8)

It has been pointed out that having school and the home collaborating in many areas, (e.g., parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community), results in optimal parental involvement, as the parents’ areas of interest are varied (Epstein 1995:704). The interview questions took account of these factors. The responses that follow are categorised according to Epstein’s definitions.

Most parents said that their children felt safe and comfortable in school. On the other hand, some parents expressed the view that the school could be more attractive and have a better atmosphere.

"I find the school rather bleak and surely things could be warmer and better. I’m in touch with a school in the country and the comparison with the school here is not positive. There everything was more personal and a person entered the school without being forced. The school was ours."

The interviews also showed that sometimes there was tension between the teachers and the parents, a finding which could be consistent with the observation that the teacher looks on him/herself as a specialist (Safran, 1996).

‘There’s a very peculiar atmosphere on the part of the teachers toward the parents. You can’t ask about anything, without raising some kind of suspicion.’

Some expressed the opinion that not all factors were considered, principally in the educational and social areas, and that the child was not given enough time.

‘The school doesn’t provide enough opportunity, not enough work. The school doesn’t encourage the child enough and doesn’t meet his needs. But it’s also right to say that the responsibility for such lies not only with the schools but also with us, the parents.’

‘I think more could be discussed about social relations within the class and where the student stands. It’s necessary to think more about co-operation in the teen years.’

Some parents mentioned disturbances in class and also teasing and harassment that they felt were not handled sufficiently.

All parents said that it was important that their relations with the school go well. Those interviewed felt they received good information about the courses at the special meetings and from informational booklets. Although interrelations were good, the opinion of the parents was seldom sought and those interviewed felt that communication should be mutual.

‘They don’t ask for information from us about anything, nor about our opinions about school activities. This is, so to speak, one-sided communication.’

Some parents said that appointments to talk with the parents were not scheduled for suitable times and were too short.

‘I feel parent interviews are way too short, a person has barely arrived when it’s time for the next.’

‘Sometimes they shooed you out after 10 minutes even though you’ve just started to talk. These parent interviews need to be more flexible as a person often needs to say more than is possible in a short time.’

Several felt that the school did not pay much attention to parents’ views nor did the school seek their opinions. Ogden (1990) has observed that the teacher may have few expectations of the parents and even that the teacher’s interpersonal skills may be lacking.

Almost all the parents considered it normal to come to school to help, especially to accompany the class on trips or to attend evening entertainment, but they felt that parents should take turns and that planning should be organised in advance. Ogden (1990) has expressed a similar opinion about parental duties and the shortage of time.

As to the question as to whether parents should come to class and talk about their work some had little belief that they had anything much to say. Others thought the children would benefit from knowing about as many jobs as possible. Some were ready to contribute to a fund to support this work, but others were negative.

Almost all the parents stressed the importance of homework and often felt that the homework assigned was suitable, though some felt that the school did not sufficiently encourage the child. Commonly parents listened to the children read, in keeping with the research results that show a close correlation between good reading skills and the mother’s listening to the child read (Hewison and Tizard 1980). The parents helped with various other tasks as well, such as maths. This is also very positive, as various research studies have shown that parental encouragement and assistance lead to better course results (Higgins 1996). As one parent in the present study said:

‘I don’t want my child to learn solely in school. I think it’s right that we follow what’s happening, and that increases to some extent involvement with the teacher…Actually, I think the school should encourage parents more to know what their children are learning.’

Some parents felt that the school emphasised too often assigning the same kind of work for homework as the child did in school. Homework, they felt, should be different and more challenging to deepen the course and to avoid boredom.

There were differences of opinion as to whether it was important for parents to attend a course in order to be better able to help their children with their course work. The parents interviewed did different things with their children for learning or entertainment (cf. Macbeth 1996).

Although the parents interviewed had not represented parents in associations or councils, some had worked at various jobs for the schools, such as helping with bingo nights or theatre presentations. Some said they would be a representative if asked. Very few felt that parents should bear more responsibility for school administration but that they could participate in various areas.

‘I don’t feel that parents should completely manage the school but they could do more than they do. I think the school should be more independent than it is now.’

Another said:

‘The schools could be more financially independent than they are now.’

When they were asked whether they felt that school activities were closely enough tied to society most parents said no, but pointed out that increased parental involvement would alleviate the problem (Safran 1996).

The parents also expressed the opinion that little was done in the society to facilitate letting parents help; suggestions included having employers give parents time to attend meetings during working hours. Entering the school and being comfortable there should be expected and there should be more life and cultural activities in the school for the area.

2.1 Discussion

The answers to the main questions posed in this study show that parents want increased input into the school activities of their children. This attitude was evidenced in various areas, though the emphases of course differed among the parents. On the other hand, there were certain factors which most of the parents emphasised, as shown by the questionnaire results. These were: Informational materials from the schools, that parents could assist their children with their homework, that parents be given guidance about school activities when the child starts school or changes school, and that parents provide information about their own children (fig. 3). The interviews revealed the same concerns, but the emphases were more varied.

All those interviewed considered it very important that the child felt comfortable and safe in school. In this connection, emphasis was placed on having the school attractive and with a warm atmosphere. The questionnaire results showed that 87% felt they were welcome in the school and that 81% felt the atmosphere was friendly (table 2). The parents also felt that the social aspects such as discipline were important. The questionnaire survey showed that 5% of the parents felt there was never enough discipline but that 23% felt there was sometimes good discipline (table 1). The survey also showed that parents felt the school did not pay enough attention to teasing and/or harassment; 2% felt their child was often or continually harassed, and 20% that their child was sometimes harassed (table 1).

The interviews showed that all parents felt that it was important to have good relations with the school, most importantly concerning their own children. They also found it important that their children have good relations in class.

Of the questionnaire respondents 68% felt they were provided with good information about school activities (table 2). On the other hand parents felt the school did not seek their own opinions enough and stressed the importance of two-way communication (fig. 3, A and D). Parents felt a newsletter would be excellent and also that information should be provided frequently, including phone calls, as any problem should be handled before becoming serious. Several of the 12 interviewed (5 ) felt that parent interviews were too short and not scheduled for a convenient time; 26% of the respondents to the questionnaire agreed with the latter complaint (table 2).

Both the survey and the interviews showed that parents stressed the importance of homework (fig. 3). Most (8 ) of those interviewed felt the homework suitable, but others felt that homework should encourage the child to do more to deepen their learning the course and to avoid boredom.

The parents interviewed also felt they should be encouraged to show more interest in their children’s courses and to assist them as appropriate. Some (7 ) felt it desirable that there be instruction for parents so they could assist their children; 56% of the parents answering the questionnaire felt it very or somewhat desirable that there be a course for parents (fig. 2). On the other hand, they considered it very important to be provided with information about school activities when the child enters school (the third most important factor, fig. 3).

The majority of those interviewed (9 ) said they were ready to help in various ways, for example on trips or with evening entertainment. This should be well organised with parents taking turns. In the survey, 40% said that they were active in parent-school collaboration (table 2).

The questionnaire results showed that 92% of the parents considered participation in parents’ councils important and that they could thereby keep up with school activities. The interviews showed that very few felt parents should bear more responsibility for school management but that they could help in various ways. Most felt the schools should be more independent than they are.

Most of those interviewed also felt that the school was not tied closely enough to society and to the school’s environment; "The school is something of an island," one said. The opinion was expressed that the school should be a lively cultural centre. Those interviewed also felt that little was done in society to meet parents’ needs and suggested that employers give them permission to attend meetings or visit the school during working hours. The most interesting conclusion of this study is that parents wants to have more influence on their children´s school activities in many fields and with different emphasise.

Aslaug Brynjlfsdottir


References

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