Parent Participation in Disadvantaged Schools: Moving beyond Attributions of Blame

Article excerpt

Although facilitating community participation in disadvantaged schools can be difficult, this article argues that, given the structuring of schooling in contemporary western democracies, it is even more difficult than we might imagine. Drawing on Bourdieu, we attempt to elucidate the complex relations between schooling and socio-cultural contexts which can lead to inequalities of opportunity for parent participation in schooling and which work to maintain disadvantage for marginalised students. Recognitive justice, with its positive regard for social difference and centrality of social democratic processes, offers us another way of advancing this discussion beyond simplistic attributions of blame. In particular, a politics of recognition is concerned with opening up the processes of schooling to groups who often have been excluded. This article uses interview data from a small Australian secondary school located in a regional community with high welfare dependency and a large indigenous population.

Introduction

The involvement of parents or other important care givers in their children's schooling is an ideal that informs much contemporary practice in schools. For some parents, such expectations are taken for granted and energetically pursued. Other parents, however--often those from working-class and ethnic minorities-do not necessarily share these understandings, at least not in ways legitimated by schools. Given these different understandings of the role of parents in schools, involving disadvantaged communities in schools can be extremely difficult (Connell, 1993).

Although traditional explanations for parents' non-participation in schooling--such as 'they just don't care', 'they're too busy', and/or 'they think that schooling is not their concern'--are affirmed in our research, we also report on accounts that deal with parental involvement in schooling from the standpoint of parents, particularly those positioned as not involved. The data are comprised of 23 semi-structured individual interviews with teachers, parents and students from a small secondary school (of 200 students) located in an Australian regional community, characterised by high welfare dependency (particularly among those who live in the township) and a large indigenous population. It is a purposive rather than a random sample--a mixture of teachers, parents and students differentiated by such attributes as gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status (SES), involvement in schooling, and levels of academic achievement. Differentiation between participants' comments is indicated by their position in the field (teacher, parent, student) and by number (e.g. Teacher #17).

This article takes the epistemological standpoint (Harding, 1998) of parents, and seeks to give voice to those largely silenced in discussion of who determines the practices of schooling. In analysing the research data for reasons why parents do not participate in schooling, two identifiable explanations became clear. In particular, the reasons parents gave for their non-participation tended to be very different from the reasons imagined by those for whom participation was part of their experience of schooling.

Our analysis begins with this second set of responses: largely traditional explanations for the non-participation of parents. We then explore the explanations of these parents themselves--the reasons they give for not getting involved in the life of the school. Finally we consider their responses to what can be done to increase the involvement of parents in schools. In doing so, we identify agendas that serve socially just purposes for schools and their communities.

Throughout this analysis, we draw upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu, particularly his notion of field, because of its explanatory power in elucidating the inequalities of opportunity in schooling--in this case, the relative positioning of parents. The article attempts to make visible the structural constraints which affect parental participation in one disadvantaged school, with a view to transforming the understandings and practices of those involved, to move beyond attributions of blame and think through ways in which agents in the field can engage with the current arrangements. …