Associate Professor Jill Aldridge, Curtin University (West. Aus.)
Dr Katrina McChesney, University of Waikato (Tauranga)
A welcoming, inclusive climate is an important goal for every school, and something many schools are working hard to provide. But how do we know if we’re succeeding? This blog post introduces a new, validated survey tool – the Parent and Caregiver Survey (PaCS) – that can help schools gather data for self-reflection and improvement.
The importance of school climate
School climate has been defined as
“the quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students’, parents’ and school personnel’s experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structure.”
In simple terms, school climate is what a school feels like to those who learn, work, visit or are otherwise connected there. For example, is the school warm? safe? welcoming? inclusive? supportive? respectful? To whom? And how do we know?
School climate is not always formally measured – or even considered – in school improvement efforts. Schools, governments, and other organisations are more likely to use student achievement data to identify target areas and plan improvement strategies. However, school climate is important because it has been shown to be associated with a range of student outcomes, including academic, behavioural, social, and mental health and wellbeing outcomes (for example, see here and here). Improving the school climate can facilitate improvement in these other valued outcomes, as well as giving students a more positive experience at school. Many schools in Aotearoa NZ are using NZCER’s excellent Wellbeing@School toolkit for this reason, surveying their students and staff about their perceptions of the school climate, and then using this information to develop action plans for improvement.
The importance of parent and whānau voice
Both school-based and research-based work on school climate mostly focus on student and staff perceptions – but parent and whānau voices are really important too. Students notice and are influenced by the way their parents or whānau feel about their school. School climate also affects how (or whether) parents and whānau engage with their children’s school.
New Zealand schools are well aware of the importance of developing educationally powerful connections with parents and whānau, and understand that doing so
- “provides access to a greater range and depth of resources to support the education endeavour;
- enhances outcomes for all students, in particular those who have been underserved or who are at risk; and
- achieves large positive effects in terms of student academic and social outcomes.” (ERO, 2016)
Building these educationally powerful connections requires two-way dialogue and relationship, where school personnel actively listen to the views and ideas of parents and whānau. Strengths-based and culturally responsive approaches are needed in order for these connections to flourish.
The School Leadership and Student Outcomes Best Evidence Synthesis (2015) teaches us that
“Given that school–home connections can have anything from large positive to small negative effects [on student outcomes], it is important that research and development inform the efforts of school, community, and policy leaders as they try to build connections that are educationally powerful.”
We recently developed a Parent and Caregiver Survey that fits into this idea of research and development informing schools’ work to build educationally powerful connections with parents and whānau. Full details of how we developed and validated the survey are available here.
The survey offers a research-based tool that schools can use to gather information on how their parents and whānau see the school. This information then forms a basis for further conversations, self-reflection, and improvement.
We began by reviewing literature to identify six key areas that the survey should include:
- The level of teacher support for students
- The extent to which the school makes student behaviour expectations clear and promotes a safe environment
- The extent to which the school affirms diversity in the backgrounds of different families
- How welcoming parents find the school
- The ease and quality of communication between the school and parents / whānau
- The extent to which parents are informed about how their child’s learning is assessed
Each of these six areas is assessed using 4 or 5 items (questions) that parents answer on a 5-point scale (from strongly disagree to strongly agree). The 5-point response format makes it quick and easy for parents to respond. Having multiple items per focus area is a common survey technique that allows us to check for consistency between the responses in each group of items, giving us confidence that parents have understood the items in the ways we had intended.
After putting together a draft survey, we validated it using responses from 1276 parents/caregivers in 23 Australian schools. A range of statistical analyses confirmed that the survey items functioned in the ways they should, except for one item which was removed. The final Parent and Caregiver Survey has strong validity based on the data from this Australian sample. We acknowledge, however, that the survey has not yet been tested in the NZ context.
Why use our survey?
The validated Parent and Caregiver Survey is freely available for educational and research use.
There are at least 5 good reasons for schools to consider using the survey:
- Collecting this sort of data from parents and whānau contributes to your Board of Trustees’ obligation to consult with your community.
- Data from the Parent and Caregiver Survey can complement data from students and teachers (e.g. gathered using the NZCER Wellbeing@School toolkit), giving you a more comprehensive picture of your overall school climate.
- The items (questions) on this survey have been pre-tested and validated, with multiple items assessing each main focus area (scale). This gives us confidence that the results are reliable and that people are interpreting the questions in the ways we might expect.
- Using an existing survey saves you time creating and refining your own questions (although you’re welcome to add or adapt questions to suit your school context.)
- It’s short, simple to administer, simple for parents to respond to, and free!
For researchers, the Parent and Caregiver Survey offers a ready-to-use, validated tool that can be easily incorporated into research projects to capture parent voice. The survey could be re-validated in new contexts, and/or be extended or adapted to better reflect NZ’s bicultural context (since the current version was developed for Australia). A version of the survey could also be developed to suit early childhood settings. We would be keen to partner with anyone interested in pursuing these possibilities.
According to the US Department of Education (2007):
“The act of conducting a survey is itself a parent-friendly message to parents that a school cares what they think.
It gives [parents] a voice in articulating what works and what does not work in the particular school community … In yielding site-specific information, it offers important guidance.
One parent noted when talking about the value of a school survey, ‘It gives us data about our actual community. It’s not just something we got from someplace else like ours that may or may not really fit us.’”
A Prof Jill Aldridge is an Associate Professor at Curtin University, Western Australia. Her central research interests focus on the development of effective, inclusive learning environments at the school and classroom levels. Her research has examined the effects, determinants and outcomes of the school and classroom climate in national, international and cross-cultural settings involving a range of research methods.
Dr Katrina McChesney is a lecturer in initial teacher education at the University of Waikato – Tauranga. She completed her PhD in 2017 under Dr Aldridge’s supervision, investigating teachers’ experiences of professional development within a major education reform in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Katrina has also worked with Dr Aldridge on a range of research and professional development projects related to school climate and its impact on student outcomes.