Education is a public good. All children should have access to education as a human right, irrespective of their gender, socioeconomic or disability status.
This is reinforced and validated by countries’ commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 4. Its promise is inclusive and equitable education, and lifelong learning for all children.
This right is not assured, however. About 303 million children and adolescents aged between five and 17 are out of school.
Research studies have underscored that parental involvement and empowerment make a difference to student education outcomes and well-being. There are five ways in which parents can improve students’ schooling outcomes:
meeting basic parental obligations
family involvement in the home
exchange and collaboration at the community level
active communication between teachers and parents
opportunities for parents to offer their services in school as volunteers.
Over the past nine years, my research through the Advancing Learning Outcomes for Transformational Change (A LOT Change) programme in Kenya has shown that when parents get involved, students’ academic and psychosocial attributes improve.
This study – which ran from 2013 to 2022 in Nairobi – has shown that parents are enablers, motivators and facilitators of their children’s education at all levels of schooling. This runs from the early years, through the provision of nurturing care, to the completion of the basic education cycle.
To establish the impact of parents’ involvement in adolescent lives, the African Population and Health Research Center implemented the A LOT Change programme in Korogocho and Viwandani in Nairobi, Kenya. Korogocho and Viwandani are informal settlements.
The community-based programme was implemented among adolescent girls between 2013 and 2015, and between girls and boys in primary school from 2016 to 2018. A cohort of secondary school students was followed from primary school between 2019 and 2022.
The programme provided after-school support and mentorship in life skills. It also provided school transition subsidies, and exposed parents to guidance and counselling to support their adolescents’ schooling. It further gave girls and boys opportunities to enhance their leadership skills through training and motivational talks.
ALOT Change sought to secure the future of children in urban informal settlements by improving learning outcomes, leadership skills and social behaviour. It also aimed to improve the transition rate for girls and boys aged 12 to 19 to secondary school.
The initiative was informed by the realisation that teachers – and schools in general – cannot do it all. They need the support of parents and communities to effectively nurture the educational aspirations of adolescents.
Findings on the importance of parents
A LOT Change initiatives improved parental involvement in children’s education. This included encouraging parents to actively communicate with their children, provide homework support and follow up on academic performance. Parents also got to know who their children associated with, or their whereabouts if the children weren’t home.
Enhanced communication between parents and adolescents: Parents who participated in the programme noted that establishing open communication channels bridged the generation gap between them and their children. This made them more useful to their children than their parents had been to them.
Evidence from the programme reinforced the effectiveness of two-way communication – parent and child spending enough time together and expressing their opinions.
A father from Viwandani said this of his relationship with his daughter:
I can say before this project, she was not open, but nowadays she is open and tells me whatever is going on in her life.
Monitoring progress in school and homework support: My findings showed that one of the ways in which parents can monitor their children’s progress is by following up on their participation in school. This requires that parents have a good relationship with teachers. As a mother explained:
You must collaborate with the teacher since sometimes some children go to roam around, and when as parents we are called by the teacher, we refuse to go. So we must work together and become one.
On the subject of homework support, a father from one of the study sites explained:
Initially, when the child comes with the book, you as parents are not even bothered to look at it. But when we attend the (ALOT Change) meetings, we are told what is happening so we know where to start or follow up with our children.
Knowledge of adolescents’ whereabouts: The need to know the whereabouts of adolescents and the friends they keep is of utmost importance. One mother said:
The children could easily be pressured into engaging in the many social ills around them … as parents, we contribute because you look at the friends your children walk with … in this community, the friends are the ones who mislead.
When parents were asked about their obligations to adolescents, they prioritised the provision of basic needs, such as food and shelter. As one mother said:
It is a parent’s responsibility to make sure that she gets to know the progress of the child, and also it is a parent’s responsibility … to give them food, shelter.
Championing success at the community level: Parents also reported that they had teamed up with the larger community to be champions of change. They were passing on lessons learned from ALOT Change to community members who were not part of the programme.
A mother from Korogocho observed that:
If you see a child doing other things, you just ignore because he is not yours. That does not help us or Kenya. Maybe this child would have been a leader.
Parental involvement is a major ingredient in a child’s educational success. Parents are leaders in the home and collaborators with teachers. This means parents need to provide basic necessities, provide a safe environment where a child studies and know the whereabouts of their children when they are not in school. They also need to offer support with school work.
Overall, the success of adolescents in school is an outcome of communication.