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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information about the research summarized in this digest, please see the note at bottom. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

The overarching aim of the research reported here was to develop knowledge about what understanding parents from Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage have of the British education system and of their children's experience of it and to discern their role in their children's education, together with the children's perspectives on these issues. We report on our findings in relation to parent–school relationships and identify key constraints on parents' involvement. In doing so, we locate the barriers to parent involvement largely within the school, rather than the parent. We also identify the importance of the role of the extended family as a form of social capital and question the individuation of parental involvement.

Research Methods

This was a 2-year qualitative project (2002 to 2004), funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in the U.K.,¹ focusing on Bangladeshi and Pakistani families in two towns in the North East of England. The research paradigm employed was critical ethnography.²

In the home context, a total of 157 households were accessed and an overall total of 591 parents and their children between sixth grade and secondary school were interviewed. We used a combination of sampling techniques including convenience sampling, snowball sampling, and typical case sampling. We collected information relating to family makeup, parental educational background, occupation, language, and home ownership status. Following the initial interviews, 20 families (10 from each ethnic group) were selected for follow-up work on the basis of different factors including social class and schools attended. Semi-structured and unstructured interviews were carried out individually, in pairs, or in groups in English, Bengali, or Punjabi. The team of researchers kept field journals in order to document observations, contextual details, reflexive notes, analytical memos, and additional information.

In the school context, 69 semi-structured interviews were conducted with teaching staff and afterschool youth workers. Documentary evidence such as attainment and attendance statistics, policies relating to parents and “race” or equality issues, and details of extracurricular events, particularly those aimed at parents, were collected where these were available.

All interview data were analyzed using a grounded theory approach whereby issues were identified and categorized into themes and patterns. These were then cross-referenced and analyzed against each other and relevant literature.

Research Findings

In occupational terms, the majority of our respondents can be loosely described as working class. However, we also know that educational qualifications in relation to parents' ability to support their children's education is as at least as important as occupation (David et al., 1997). The majority of our respondents had few academic qualifications and had left school between the age of 14 and 16 years; most of the Bangladeshi heritage parents had been educated in Bangladesh and approximately 40% of Pakistani heritage parents had been educated solely in Pakistan. The majority of parents were first generation, although this was more the case for Bangladeshi parents.

Also, cultural capital and social capital are important in relation to the kinds of support and influence parents can invoke to support their children's education, but the traditional indicators of these forms of capital are not as apparent with these ethnic groups. Cultural factors such as izzat (family honor; Ansari, 2004) and the impact of this need to be taken into account, as does the impact of migration, in terms of motivation and expectations regarding achievement.

Parents' Knowledge, Views, and Expectations of the Education System
There were a number of differences between the Bangladeshi and Pakistani parents in their knowledge, views, and expectations of the education system. Most Bangladeshi parents knew very little about the education system or what their children did in school or how they were progressing.

Pakistani parents, who were less unified in their views, social class backgrounds, levels of education, and firsthand experience of the UK education system, demonstrated differing their levels of knowledge and understanding. Whilst some parents seemed to understand little, most parents had a broad understanding of the education system and their children's general progress. They were generally satisfied with their children's primary school but were more critical and discerning about the secondary schools.

The majority of parents believed their children were doing well academically and did not have any problems even though this was not usually the case. The Bangladeshi parents, in particular, tended to place immense trust in the teachers, recognizing their own lack of knowledge in contrast to that of the professional.

Given that there is now substantial information available for parents regarding their rights of school choice and how to help their children in school, the schools in this study are failing to convey such information to these groups of parents and engage them in any understanding of it.

Parents' Hopes and Aspirations for Their Children
All of the parents, irrespective of their ethnicity or socioeconomic background, expressed a value for education and a desire for their children to do well. Two key elements of this were their Islamic values and wanting better opportunities for their children than they had.

Although teachers in our study believed that Muslim parents have different expectations for girls and boys, we found that this is not quite the case. Many parents from both communities had high aspirations for their children, wanting them to go to university and, for example, become doctors. However, many also took a more passive attitude and said it was up to their children to decide and that it depended on their children's ability.

Parents' Relationship With Their Children's School
Parents in both ethnic groups saw their role as providing “behind the scene” support, such as a supportive home and family background and to give encouragement. In addition, whilst parents themselves may not have been directly involved, the wider family in both communities did play an important part in supporting the children's education. The social capital offered by the extended family was used to compensate for parents' own lack of educational or cultural capital, although we also found that it was frequently limited value capital and therefore often could not provide the most effective advice and guidance to position the student to fulfill their high ambitions.

Although there is a tendency to blame ethnic cultural factors on parents' lack of involvement, we believe that schools need to take major responsibility for this. Expectations of parents were frequently implicit, but without the requisite cultural capital parents would not be aware of what was expected. Overall secondary schools demonstrated complacency or indifference to the diversity of their parent body which manifested itself in a “one size fits all” attitude.

Implications for Practice

There is a tendency to place the onus of responsibility for educational involvement on the parents. However, in this short account we have shown that parents from these two ethnic groups are constrained from becoming more involved as a result of the interrelationship of a complex set of factors, with some of these emanating from the schools. Therefore we have identified the need:

  • For the development of greater knowledge, understanding, awareness, and sensitivity on the part of the schools with respect to the diversity of their parent and student body
  • For schools to address more directly implicit institutional racism
  • To develop strategies to deal with racial harassment and strategies to support young people who are experiencing this
  • To develop their school ethos in order to demonstrate the value for and recognition of cultural diversity but in doing so avoid tokenistic gestures
  • To develop explicit and realistic expectations of parents educational participation and provide support to enable parents to participate as fully as is possible
  • For schools to address how they convey information to parents and to develop creative means of ensuring the information is received and understood; schools could use their community liaison assistants in conjunction with classroom teachers to develop such practice.
  • To ensure that the relationship between home and school should involve the student as well as the parents; with respect to South Asian families, at least, this may well mean another family member rather than the mother or father.



Ansari, H. (2004). The infidel within. London: Hurst and Company.

David, M. E., West, A., Noden, P., Edge, A., & Davies, J. (1997). Parental choice, involvement and expectations of achievement in education (Clare Market Papers, 13). London: London School of Economics.

¹ Grant reference: R000239671.
² Critical ethnography aims to link the analysis of the research findings to the wider social structures and power relationships in order to get beneath surface manifestations. See Harvey, L. (1990). Critical social research. London: Unwin Hyman.


For more information about the research project Parents, Children, and the School Experience: Asian Families' Perspectives email Gill Crozier, University of Sunderland, at or go to

Gill Crozier
University of Sunderland
School of Education and Lifelong Learning
Hammerton Hall
Gray Road
United Kingdom

Jane Davies,
University of Sunderland
School of Education and Lifelong Learning
Hammerton Hall
Gray Road
United Kingdom

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project