Support young people to keep their grip on opportunity

Parent Power

Parent Power aims to elevate parents as powerful actors in their children’s education journey by supporting schools, departments of education and non-profit organisations (NPOs) to engage with parents in a meaningful way. This brings a level of partnership and co-ownership to the provision of quality education for South African children.

Parent power is guided by three learning questions:

  1. What would it look like if South African parents understood what quality education is, and their role in ensuring their children have access to this?
  2. How do we build partnerships between schools and parents in South Africa to ensure parents are able to champion their children’s education?
  3. What change occurs for learners, parents and schools when parents become active agents in their children’s education journey?

Ganyesa Primary School parent training programme in the North West.

The disconnect

This explains why the project exists

There are massive  quality gaps in South African public schooling. A lack of parental involvement is often mentioned as a contributing factor to poor educational outcomes, and the very notion of parental “involvement” is regarded as  supporting a child in subject-based homework1Felix, N., Dornbrack, J. & Sheckle, E. 2008. Parents, homework and socio-economic class: Discourses of deficit and disadvantage in the “new” South Africa. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 7(2): 99-112..

The vast majority of parents want the best for their children from day one – most will go to great lengths to enhance their child’s life chances. However, there is no denying that doing this is more challenging in contexts where parents lack education and resources. More than half (55%) of South Africans live in poverty2STATS SA. Poverty trends in South Africa: An examination of absolute poverty between 2006 and 2015. Access here.; and of the approximately 19% of adults with no or low education3STATS SA. Education Series Volume III: Educational Enrolment and Achievement, 2016.  Access here., 79% of them live in poverty. In addition, employed parents from poor backgrounds are more likely to have inflexible work schedules and long commuting times, which makes it difficult for them to be involved parents in the current, narrow conception of “involvement”.

Although parents say they know they should be involved, and want to be involved, they are often not as involved and supportive as they or the school would like4Murray et al. 2017.. Worldwide, parents of all walks of life say that they find engaging with their children’s schools intimidating and often feel redundant in their child’s learning journey5Barwell, C. 2017. No parent left behind: How parents can change the global landscape of education. Brookings Institution.  Access here.. This is so much more the case for parents with low levels of education, who are living in impoverished communities and had negative schooling experiences themselves6Murray et al. 2017..

A number of studies have found that many South African parents from a poverty context feel disempowered7Smit, A. G. & Liebenberg, L. 2003. Understanding the dynamics of parent involvement in schooling within the poverty context.. They feel they have little, if any, say in the education of their children, who are taught by teachers who are much better qualified. As a result, they rely heavily upon those who occupy positions of power around them, such as school staff, to assist in their lives. This reliance is often simply ignored, leading to an unequal relationship between schools and parents, where parents are unable to hold schools accountable.

Yet, parents are the first educators of their children. Studies from the Research on Socioeconomic Policy Group (RESEP) found that encouragement and support from parents, not necessarily assistance with specific homework, improved learner achievement even for children attending schools where education is not of great quality8Bergbauer A, The role of inter-personal interactions in South African education, Research on Socioeconomic Policy (ReSEP), Working Paper 09/16. .

It is important for parents, teachers and school managers to understand that parents bring value to their child’s educational journey by virtue of being a caring parent who wants the best for their children. Moreover, parents have untapped power – and rights – to partner with and hold school managers and teachers accountable for quality standards.

Through this initiative, DGMT envisages a South Africa where parents are able to analyse information about children’s school experiences and learning journeys. They can exercise their power both individually and collectively to demand that all South African children receive a holistic quality education.


The majority of South Africans are stuck in an inequality trap with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Most are stuck in intergenerational loops of exclusion with few chances to escape. Breaking this cycle requires a fundamental change in life trajectories, starting in the womb.

Mahobe Suskiswa, a Grade 12 pupil at the Gwebityala Secondary School near Elliotdale in the Eastern Cape, in front of the small home which she shared with her mother, father and five siblings in 2018. Both her parents were unemployed at that time and they survived on child support grants. Despite difficult circumstances, Mahobe took her school work very seriously.  At Gwebityala Secondary School, parents, and in fact, the larger community is very involved with the school thanks to the inspired leadership of the school principal who draws them in to participate in different ways.

Think of a Möbius strip – just one twist in the circle allows you to trace a completely different pattern. Instead of being stuck on the inside of a loop, you emerge on the outside. In the same way, escaping the inequality trap requires a fundamental twist to set South Africa on a new path.

The twist in thinking

This explains how the project approaches problems
Identity Building: Powerful Knowledge

Parents are the first educators of their children. Their ability to know and love their child best has unparalleled benefits. Knowledge is critical in the hands of parents who feel powerful and are ready for action. Therefore, Parent Power is driving a communications campaign that will:

  • Help build the identity of parents as first educators, demonstrating the value they bring to the educational journey of their children by giving their children love and support.
  • Provide parents with information about constructive pathways for action to ensure they are able to lead to progress in schools.
  • Give parents the necessary tools to act as mobilisers in their community to ensure that the greater community invests in their schools.
Mobilisation and Action: School-Parent Partnership Journey

Parent Power aims to shift the understanding of parental involvement from the narrowed conception that alienates many parents in South Africa. We redefine the role of parents as key partners in ensuring quality education for every child in South Africa, by exploring more robust forms of engagement between schools and parents.

School engagement is done through the school-parent partnership journey, which consists of three workshops for parents and is aimed at laying the foundation for them to facilitate the process of building new partnerships with schools.

Parent Power works with the belief that every parent can play a valuable role in the education journey of their children. The building of a strong partnership between schools and parents is a long game and requires constant attention and investment.

Ultimately, there are only two ways to improve the world – through technology and through behaviour change. Our annual publication, the Human Factor, focuses on the latter.

The second issue of the Human Factor again challenges South Africans to rethink their expectations – this time of parents, and their role as their children’s first teachers and champions of their education, even once they enter the formal education system. Entitled ‘The heart of parenting – how the alchemy of love, hope and fear prepares children for life’, this issue explores what gives parents the power to champion their children’s education, and what takes it away. 

Read it here.

The trajectory change

This explains what the project is doing to make a difference

Parent Power will drive its work through three key strategies:

  • Local activation and mobilisation of parents through school structures and departments of education to learn about building partnerships between parents and schools for the improvement of children’s education experiences;
  • Building the identity of parents as powerful actors in their child’s education and learning journeys; and
  • A communications portal aimed at connecting new and existing stakeholders to action-based research and practical strategies to build involvement of parents.

Trying to change life trajectories is ambitious and profound. It requires us to radically influence the lives of individuals and to be part of changing the circumstances in which they live.

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