Eight years of research in low-income neighbourhoods of Nairobi have opened my eyes to the significant role of school, family and community partnerships. Not only are they crucial for student achievement, they can narrow the performance gap between children in high and low income settings.
My work in Nairobi confirms findings from research that stretches back over two decades in different contexts. For instance, renowned Harvard social analyst Lisbeth Schorr observed in her book that social programmes taken to scale resulted in the transformation of poor neighbourhoods and communities.
The positive results suggest that a host of positive outcomes can be achieved when communities partner with schools.
My research showed that forging a partnership between family, community and school enables parents to take part in the academic success of their children. Parents acquire knowledge, skills and confidence for better parenting. This in turn enables them to improve their economic lot and become better citizens.
The three-way partnerships also contribute to social capital. Social capital refers to relationships among and between different actors for the purpose of achieving a common good. Therefore, the partnership between family, community and schools improves the interconnections between the institutions. This in turn enriches the relationships between parents and their children for academic success.
Schools can also draw on resources external to them – the families and the community – to bridge any challenges they may face in the way of the children’s education.
As a result, parents are thrust to the centre of this relationship as a resource for the improvement of their children and the schools. Parents cease to be distant observers who are far removed from the education of their children. Families can draw from these new networks to enable their children to succeed in school.
My work over the past three years revolved around the practical application of this paradigm shift in two informal settlements in Nairobi under the “Improving Learning Outcomes” project. The two relatively poor urban settlements of Korogocho and Viwandani had poor learning outcomes at primary school level and low transition to secondary school.
A 2010 study in Nairobi put the transition rate from primary to secondary school in slum schools at 46%. The primary school completion among slum children stood at 76%. The transition rate compared poorly to the non-slum at an average of 72% transition and while 92% had completed primary school. Despite the introduction of free day secondary education in 2008 which was supposed to reduce the cost of schooling for low income groups, 27% of pupils still don’t make the transition to secondary school.
Understanding the reasons for this and designing interventions was a major part of our project.
The positive association between the involvement of parents and student achievement has consistently been documented by scholars for some time now. Parental involvement includes communication with teachers and others working in a school, helping with school work at home and volunteering at school. Attending school events, such as parent-teacher meetings and conferences is also important.
Children of actively involved parents perform better in school, learn better and have stronger problem solving skills. They also attend school regularly, enjoy their schooling, and have fewer behavioural problems.
The main interventions during our research in Nairobi included:
- after school support with homework and mentoring in life skills,
- counselling for parents on active involvement in their children’s schooling, including support with homework. They were encouraged to limit household chores and educated on child labour,
- secondary school transition subsidies. This was a transition from primary to secondary school, and
- mentoring of students in leadership, a component that we added in the expansion phase.
We worked with community leaders to encourage a closer working relationship between the community, parents and the school. For instance, the community leaders encouraged parents to support their children’s education, particularly girls. This included encouraging a working relationship between girls their parents and teachers.
Parents believed that interacting with teachers was important because it helped reduce the probability of children becoming truant. They also counted on interaction with teachers to reduce instances of peer pressure.
The community leaders support for girls’ education persisted over the course of our three year work. This was particularly evident in their support to the parental component of the intervention. The community, built a supportive relationship on education and understanding the social change and peer pressure faced by the youth.
The result was improved learning outcomes, particularly in numeracy where girls recorded a 20 percentage point improvement in scores. There is also evidence that girls who participated in the programme had higher educational aspirations, with a substantial proportion of girls whose highest education aspiration was completing secondary school aspiring to acquire university education.
Transition to secondary school rates in Korogocho and Viwandani among the 2013 cohort of girls who participated in the project stood at 68%. This was a 22% improvement over the 2010 statistic of 46% (both girls and boys). Although the rate was still lower than the national average in 2010 by 9 percentage points, it represented a much reduced gap between urban slum children and the national average.
Among those girls who made a transition to secondary school in 2014, three girls joined prestigious girls’ national schools. National schools are the best-resourced and admit the highest performing students from across all counties in Kenya.
In 2015, three girls from Korogocho who qualified for the subsidy to join secondary also went on to qualify for a prestigious scholarship programme which targets gifted but economically and socially marginalised students.
Our findings show that the education outcomes of young people can be improved with targeted interventions. At the centre lies the participation of partners – community, family and schools.