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Developing partnerships: The home, school and community interface

Trevor H. Cairney and Jenny Ruge
School of Lifelong Learning and Educational Change
University of Western Sydney Nepean

The purpose of the Developing Partnerships project[1] was to examine how the language and school literacy learning of students is related to and influenced by support within their home and community environment as well as their parent, caregiver or tutor's involvement in their literacy learning. The study examined home/school initiatives situated within a variety of community contexts designed to support school literacy learning through home support. These contexts included schools, After School Care, Community Libraries, Homework Centres, and a variety of community centres.

Parent involvement in children's education has long been recognised as an important element in effective schooling (Epstein, 1983; Delgado-Gaitan, 1991). There appears to be a high positive correlation between parent knowledge, beliefs, and interactive styles, with children's school achievement (Schaefer, 1991). Differences in language and literacy experiences in the home and community appear to have a strong relationship to student achievement in school literacy. In fact, it has been suggested by some, that specific home literacy practices, such as parent help with reading, are better predictors of success than other factors such as intelligence (Hewison & Tizard, 1980). Not surprisingly, many researchers and teachers have attempted to explore the links between home and school achievement. One of the outcomes of this investigation was the development of a variety of family literacy initiatives and home/school programs. The specific objectives of the project were to:

These objectives were explored in three main phases:


The National Plan for Literacy and Numeracy (DEETYA, 1998) recognises that the early years of schooling have a vital part to play in children's ultimate success in school. It also recognises that parents and the community have a right to know more about what goes on inside school. Specifically, it makes reference to the need for forms of reporting that are understandable. While the National Plan does not specifically acknowledge the vital role that parents and families will play in ensuring that the goals of the plan are achieved, there is implicit acknowledgment of their importance.

A clear implication for the National Plan is for this implicit concern for the vital role of parents to be expanded and built into policy formulations and decisions about professional development.

The Developing Partnerships project has shown that there are significant initiatives being undertaken across Australia that have the potential to support the Commonwealth Government's plan. The government should highlight the importance of families and the community and provide some dedicated funding for professional development in this area. There is also a further need to identify funding to seed innovative approaches to the development of partnerships between schools and their communities. This funding should also include a research component to ensure that any initiative is properly evaluated.


This project found that the needs of students from each of the target groups identified were being addressed by many of the programs and initiatives examined. A large proportion of the programs reviewed addressed the needs of children with disabilities or learning difficulties (26%), families identified as socio-economically disadvantaged (26%), those from non-English speaking backgrounds (14%) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (7%). However, while recognising this indicated a reasonable level of concern for these groups, it must be stressed that the extent to which the specific needs of the groups were addressed varied from specially designed programs to indirect concern and recognition of their special needs. This indicates the ongoing need for the concentration of significant professional development funding in this area.

The issue of gender construction and influence on literacy practices was also identified as important from our evaluation of the various initiatives. Overall three issues stand out as worthy of comment in this brief report of our results. First, the participation of adults in Family Literacy programs is strongly gender-based, with women representing the majority of participants. In fact, many program coordinators reported that all of the adults involved were mothers. This is no doubt reflective of parenting practices generally, with women still assuming major responsibility in most families. While there were exceptions to this general trend when for cultural reasons the male took the lead in maintaining contact with the school, and when programs were run at night (which led to more male participation), involvement in children's schooling and specifically literacy learning was found to be primarily a matter for women.

Second, it was evident from our family case studies that the relationship between gender and cultural background is a critical one when addressing this issue. Our findings show that cultural differences can make a dramatic difference to the form of involvement that males have in their children's schooling and literacy. For example, in one family it was the father who had far more time for reading and hence demonstrated this practice far more within the home, whereas it was still the mother who was involved with support of the children's literacy. Third, it needs to be stressed that virtually all personnel involved in Family Literacy programs were women. Programs were largely initiated, planned, run and coordinated by women for women. This evidence of the continued gendered nature of home/school initiatives suggest that professional development programs that focus on issues of gender might also consider h ow schools can adopt positive strategies to involve males in these activities.

A further area that might well receive additional focus as part of teachers' ongoing professional development is recognition of cultural diversity and the specific learning and curriculum needs of students from minority cultural groups. Our work suggests that, while there is immense cultural diversity within our schools and communities, this is not necessarily recognised in classroom programs. Teachers need additional help both in identifying the specific needs of students from diverse backgrounds and in the development of responsive curricula.

The need to equip teachers to design relevant home/school initiatives was also identified as an important professional development priority. Current family and community literacy initiatives in Australia vary greatly in the extent and source of funding. Our research shows that there is great diversity in levels of funding and availability. When our research was completed, we concluded that little direct funding was being made available for family literacy initiatives and no formal mechanisms had been established to permit ongoing funding for key initiatives to become a reality. Little has happened since at a national level. However, some states have provided some limited funds for professional development in this area.


The outcomes of this project indicated that there was still much to be learned about home/school partnership and the school's response to the diversity evident within students' homes and communities. The report identified the need for additional research into how the language and literacy of students is related to the language and culture of the home and community. While this project provided valuable data relating to this issue, more detailed and long term research needs to be conducted. The final report recommended a 2-3 year ethnographic study be funded, that involved linguistic and sociological analyses of language interactions and literacy practices at home and school. While we now have a better understanding of the nature of family literacy programs in Australia as a result of this current research, we argue that there is a need for further exploration of the matches and mismatches between the literacy practices of schools and their communities.

Our report recommended that further research should be funded which addresses the mismatches between home and community literacy practices. It was suggested that this should have as one of its main aims the formulation of guidelines for schools to use to identify and address the mismatches between the literacy practices of home and school.[2] The findings of this study were in line with the findings of other research that has observed lower levels of literacy in some of the specific target groups identified. For example, the link between poverty and low levels of literacy has long been recognised. Our research was not able to provide data that establishes why such a relationship might exist. However, although research is yet to find any conclusive direct causal link between poverty and low levels of literacy, there is little doubt that children who are socio-economically disadvantaged are more likely to experience difficulty in literacy learning than are children not similarly disadvantaged (see for example Orr, 1994).

There are many reasons for the lack of clarity in this area. First, nominated 'target groups' such as those mentioned above may, for the purposes of research, be treated as mutually exclusive groups. Yet, in reality, this is far from the case. Families may not unambiguously meet the criteria for inclusion in such target groups, or may in fact 'fit' more than one group. Certainly, for the families with whom we worked in this project, identification of the 'target group(s)' to which each family belonged, was not a simple process. Second, the dynamics of family relationships, school experiences, and family literacy practices are complex and differ markedly from family to family. Even for families that seem to 'fit' only one of the identified target groups, there is no sense in which they form an homogeneous group. In terms of those aspects of family life and school experience which influence children's literacy learning, there may well be as much variation within so-called 'target groups' as there is across groups. There is a need for further funding to explore the relationship between the support of literacy in the home and success at school, particularly for specific groups (for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families). The major purpose of this research would be to identify key areas of support that are necessary to increase the school retention and success of the children from these families.

A further concern with family literacy initiatives is related to the work of a number of feminist scholars (for example, Gilbert, 1989; Gilbert & Taylor, 1991) which has explored the 'fashioning of the feminine'. Our research suggests that there is a real danger that family literacy programs might well inadvertently reinforce what are already very strongly gendered constructions of family roles in relation to support of children's literacy and learning. This issue requires further consideration and research. Specifically, research is needed into the influence of gender on parent roles as supporters of children's literacy learning and the strategies that can be employed to address the low participation of males in the support of school literacy.

Another area of needed research is an investigation of the effectiveness of specific programs and strategies designed to foster more effective home/school relationships. This research project found that many programs were single focussed. For example, they were at times concerned with the specific needs of a particular group of children, or designed to meet the needs of a particular school for increased parent involvement. Some programs were also under-pinned by 'deficit driven' theories of language, literacy and learning.

One of the major concerns arising from our research was the lack of evaluation of existing family and community literacy initiatives. Our review of 261 programs in phase 1 indicated that only 16 percent of these programs were more formally evaluated and that 14 percent of programs were not even evaluated informally. As well, only 20 percent of all programs were evaluated in relation to student outcomes. While there is overwhelmingly positive feedback in relation to the success of family literacy programs, there is a need for more data concerning the impact of such programs on student outcomes. It was argued that DEETYA should fund a two-year project as part of its children's literacy research initiatives to explore the impact of a number of recognised family literacy programs on student outcomes.


Our project report concluded there is a great need to fund research and professional development that is concerned with the vital relationship between home and school. It was also argued that increased emphasis should be given within undergraduate teacher education programs to this relationship.

It was of considerable concern that there were so many home/school initiatives across the various school systems within Australia and yet there has been virtually no evaluation of these initiatives. Nevertheless, this level of activity reflects teacher and school observations of the vital role that teachers play and the established evidence within the research literature that families play a major role in children's school success. It was concluded that we require a more systematic evaluation of many of the major home/school initiatives supported at school and system level. One encouraging outcome of our work was that the framework that was outlined for the evaluation of home/school initiatives has been used as part of professional development work in some school systems in Australia. Others might want to consider this framework before providing additional funding in this area.


DEETYA . (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australians schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (1991). Involving parents in schools: A process of empowerment. American Journal of Education, 100, 20-45.

Epstein, J. (1983). Effects on parents of teacher practices of parent involvement. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University, Report No. 346, pp. 277-294.

Gilbert, P. (1989). Writing, schooling and deconstruction: From voice to text in the classroom. London: Routledge.

Gilbert, P. & Taylor, S. (1991). Fashioning the feminine: Girls, popular culture and schooling. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Hewison, J. & Tizard, S. (1980). Parental involvement in reading attainment. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50, 209-215.

Orr, E. (1994). Australia's literacy challenge. Sydney: Smith Family.

Schaefer, E. (1991). Goals for parent and future parent education: Research on parental beliefs and behaviour. Elementary School Journal, 91, 239-247.


  1. Cairney, T.H., Ruge, J., Buchanan, J., Lowe, K. & Munsie, L. (1995). Developing partnerships: The home, school and community interface. (Vols 1-3). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1995_partnerships.html
  2. DEETYA subsequently funded the authors to conduct the two year Community Literacy Practices and Schooling project in 1995.
Author details: Professor Trevor H. Cairney,
Office of Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research,
UWS Nepean, P.O. 10, Kingswood, NSW, 2747.
Phone: (02) 47 360 036 Fax: (02) 47 364 186
Email: t.cairney@uws.edu.au
Homepage: http://tcairney.cadre.com.au/ [verified 1 Jan 2005 at http://www.trevorcairney.com/]

Please cite as: Cairney. T. H. and Ruge, J. (1999). Developing partnerships: The home, school and community interface. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 17-24. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/cairney1.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Jan 2005. Last revision: 1 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/cairney1.html