BUDDIES – BUilding BriDges, Diminishing Educational DiSadvantage


Although family engagement in children’s learning is a well-established predictor of educational success (see e.g. Higgins & Katsipataki, 2015 and Axford et al., 2019), many children do not enjoy such involvement and several schemes have been put in place across different countries to encourage parents/guardians to take a more active role in their children’s education (Axford et al., 2019).
One such initiative which has been gaining ground in the Republic of Ireland is the Home-School Community Liaison scheme, funded by the Department of Education through the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in School) programme and regulated by Tusla/TESS. It aims to support families in areas of high deprivation whose children are at risk of educational disadvantage, by means of a Home School Community Liaison Coordinator (HSCL). Although existing research shows that such a scheme can be advantageous in bridging what can sometimes be a large home-school gap (Mulkerrins, 2007); improving parents’ confidence and competence in supporting their child’s education (Weir et al., 2018); and in nurturing the well-being of children and their families (Ross et al., 2021) little is known about the ‘lived reality’ of the HSCL in practice, particularly with regard to tackling educational disadvantage. Likewise, although anecdotal evidence would suggest that a similar type role, known as a Parent Officer for the purposes of this study, can be found in some schools in Northern Ireland on an ad hoc basis, little, if anything, is known about how it works in practice.
In light of the above, the study in question set out, principally by means of a qualitative research design, to learn more about the ‘lived reality’ of the HSCL/Parent Officer in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and across the differ school phases i.e. pre-school, primary and post-primary in an effort to:
 explore the implementation and administration of the HSCL type role across the island of Ireland, with a particular focus on how they operate in schools (early years to post-primary) serving disadvantaged communities;
 gather evidence on how HSCLs/Parent Officers operate in practice and how they are perceived by a range of stakeholders, e.g., addressing issues such as ‘best’ practice, perceived benefits (particularly for those more disengaged from education and at risk of educational underachievement), outcomes, and barriers/ challenges; and
 share learning across the island of Ireland in order to inform policy and practice for both pre-service and in-service teacher education.
Six schools participated in this research study (three from the North and three from the South) and all school phases, i.e. pre-school, primary and post-primary, were represented. In each school, research participants included: principal/senior leaders, HSCLs/Parent Officers, teachers and parents and the data collection methods used included one-to-one interviews and focus groups where appropriate. Light touch observations were also carried out across most of the schools to gain a deeper insight into the type of activities carried out by the HSCL/Parent Officer, the plans and resources used and their daily routine. A brief online questionnaire was distributed to principals/senior leaders in an effort to garner a larger response on some of the high level issues regarding type of schools where HSCLs/Parent Officers are found, funding sources, employment status etc.
The study’s main findings are organised around four themes:
1. HSCL/Parent Officer as Policy: the study highlighted that the policy context pertaining to the HSCL/PO role differs substantially between the two jurisdictions. While the HSCL coordinator in the Republic of Ireland has a clearly defined role, with a long history and embedded in a high-profile policy initiative at national level, the situation in Northern Ireland is much less formalised, and therefore much more diverse. In both jurisdictions, funding for parental engagement is subject to eligibility criteria and is targeted to benefit pupils and families from disadvantaged social groups. This is in keeping with the overall aim to reduce educational disadvantage which informs policies across the island of Ireland. However, in the Republic of Ireland, while DEIS Post-Primary schools and DEIS Urban primary schools have access to an HSCL, DEIS Rural primary schools are no longer included in the HSCL scheme and currently the DEIS programme does not extend to pre-school. The main funding streams in Northern Ireland, however, do not distinguish between school phase or geographical location as it is at the discretion of the principal/senior leader whether they invest the funding in a Parent Officer or something else.
2. HSCL/Parent Officer in Practice: While it was appreciated that all HSCLs/POs bring with them: “their own unique skillset”, the study indicated that certain characteristics are necessary on the part of an HSCL/PO to ensure success in their role: it was considered necessary that HSCLs/POs are warm, sensitive, caring, approachable and empathetic, alongside being able to form relationships with others as well as being genuine, trustworthy and a good communicator – an holistic skillset which could be summed up as a ‘professional’ buddy – personable, sociable, yet highly professional. The type of activities engaged in also appeared quite similar across both jurisdictions. These ranged from relaxed events to nurture heathy relationships between teachers and parents as well as between parents themselves, to more structured activities to familiarize parents with the school and to provide them with feedback about their own children as well as upskilling them on a variety issues to help them support their children’s learning at home. The range of activities carried out in both jurisdictions and across all settings coincided with best practice recommended by the wider literature base where interventions that address parents’ own role construction and support their ability to engage with their children’s learning in the home are considered most successful. One particular area of contention arose around the notion of HSCL/Parent Officer as ‘teacher’ versus ‘community worker’. While releasing a teacher, as in the ROI, to focus directly on this role was deemed ‘gold standard’, it was agreed that “Finding that person who is the right fit for the community is invaluable.”
3. HSCL/Parent Officer as Value: While family engagement was considered a priority by all concerned, the study highlighted both North and South and across all school phases, the level of importance attributed to the role of the HSCL/Parent Officer in terms of making this a success in practice, summed up in the quotation: “couldn’t cope without them” (Primary, Teacher, ROI). The benefits of having an HSCL/Parent Officer in practice were associated with those softer benefits of keeping everyone happy and in so doing, enabling the school and school life to run smoothly: “it takes out the aggro” (Primary, Pre-school, Principal, ROI). It was also considered intrinsic to reducing barriers to learning, where strong communication between home and school ensured “the best school experience possible” that a child could potentially have. Furthermore, it was associated with increased attendance and enhanced academic outcomes i.e.
pupils’ overall success, particularly at a post primary level. Having an HSCL/PO type role was considered integral to school life both North and South: “Principals love it, parents love it and HSCLs love it“ (ROI policymaker).
4. HSCL/Parent Officer as tacking educational disadvantage: The study has indicated that one of the main roles played by HSCLs/Parent Officers is helping to break down barriers and changing mindsets to address parents own negative recollections of schooling as well as being there as a support for families at all times is integral to their success. It is the “direct link” (Primary, Parent, ROI) or indeed the “safety net” (Primary, Parent, NI) they provide for parents that help them deal with the many financial constraints and emotional challenges they encounter on a regular basis, a support mechanism which parents considered was so “vitally, vitally important”. Furthermore, the study has highlighted that encouraging all teachers to fully appreciate the challenges of disadvantage instead of having “unrealistic expectations” was also a key role played by the HSCL/Parent Officer, and in so doing, enabling all children, irrespective of their background, the opportunity to reach their full educational potential. The findings from this study have showcased, that investing in a definite role or individual whose core goal is to build bridges between home and school for the benefit of the children concerned can really make a difference to the lives of all concerned.
Key Definitions
Throughout the report, some abbreviated terms are frequently used that may require clarification:
 HSCL: Home-School Community Liaison coordinator
 Parent Officer: although several terms are used to describe this role in the Northern Ireland context, we have used the term, Parent Officer or PO throughout for consistency reasons
 DEIS: Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools
 NI: Northern Ireland
 ROI: the Republic of Ireland
 PP: Post-Primary
 SEN: Special Educational Needs
 EANI: Education Authority, Northern Ireland
 TUSLA/TESS: Tusla Education Support Service in ROI  MaxQDA: is software for conducting principally Qualitative Data Analysis.  SPSS: Software that is used as a Statistical Analytic Tool in the field of Social Science  BERA: British Educational Research Association  CPD: Continuing Professional Development