This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 8
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Title: Using context-based teaching to engage parents in their children’s learning in the UK
Author: Corcoran, S
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2019

Parental engagement in education – their attitudes to learning and the roles they play in academic achievement and socio-emotional development – influences children’s attitudes to learning. In this article, Su discusses ESERO-UK’s Tim Peake Primary Project (TPPP), which increased the engagement of parents and wider communities in schools, although this was not an aim of the project.

A focus on space
In the UK, educational initiatives have sought to increase students’ motivation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and boost the uptake of these subjects in higher education and as future careers. Taking advantage of the Principia mission that took the first Briton to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015, the TPPP aimed to motivate teachers’ and students’ engagement in STEM subjects in 1,400 UK primary schools.

Using space as a context for cross-curricular teaching and learning, the TPPP directly increased pupils’ enjoyment and engagement in science, numeracy and literacy. It increased pupil attainment in science, and teachers’ confidence in teaching space-related topics and using space as a cross-curricular context for teaching. The project helped engage girls, and young people with specific learning needs, who would not usually engage in STEM.

Real-life learning
Effective STEM education and high-quality STEM teaching in primary schools helps promote student interest in and uptake of STEM subjects at higher levels. However, non-specialists, who may lack confidence in their subject knowledge, often teach primary level STEM subjects. Students’ learn best in STEM subjects when they have access to authentic context-based learning opportunities involving inquiry-based practices such as active learning, reasoning and problem-solving, and creativity. The TPPP – delivered by the European Space Education Resource Office in the UK (ESERO-UK), and funded by the UK Space Agency and the Department for Education, with further support from the European Space Agency – provided a real-life context.

The TPPP provided teachers with continuing professional development (CPD), resources, and support from specially trained Space Ambassadors (SA). SAs include self-employed science educators delivering innovative science education activities in schools, and people working for companies involved in science and engineering industries in the UK who act as ambassadors for STEM. Schools interested in taking part applied to ESERO-UK and were assigned an SA, who trained teachers about teaching space, presented practical activities included in the resource pack, and provided ongoing project support.

Some schools only used the TPPP for National Curriculum science. Others developed a cross-curricula whole-school project for all classes over the course of a week/month. For example, in literacy the children write newspaper articles or poems, in art/technology they make/draw planets or space stations or build space buggies, in mathematics they do various calculations on the distance to planets, and in science they do various experiments.

Community connections
The SAs helped schools link with local industry and STEM groups that could be useful resources (e.g. inviting local astronomy clubs into schools, inviting pilots from local air force bases, or bringing researchers from local universities and/or industry). The activities delivered by the SAs ranged from leading science classes that teachers observe, to whole school assemblies and community events.

Engaging parents, families and community
Parents, extended families, and to some extent the wider community, are children’s first teachers. They are responsible for the majority of what children learn in their first few years. Even after children start school, parents still have a significant impact on children’s learning, particularly in relation to their attitudes to school.

The relationships that parents and communities have with teachers and schools, impact parents’ roles in schools and the extent to which they work together on children’s wellbeing and intellectual development. In the UK, schools are playing greater roles in educating parents, developing family education initiatives and building community relationships in order to meet social and academic goals. For example, primary schools in North Wales run initiatives like ‘Magnificent Mondays’, encouraging parents to join their children for an afternoon each week/month to work together on topics like mathematics. The parents learn alongside their children and/or support them with their work.

The TPPP had an impact on parents, grandparents and members of the communities local to a number of participating schools. Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS captured their imagination: parents were motivated by their children’s participation in the project and the topic of space, and the media coverage of the mission boosted their engagement. Seeing Tim on the television in the morning, linked children and their parents to the activities taking place in school. To some extent, through the project, they felt that Tim belonged to them and they were part of history.

Some schools specifically used the project to increase parental engagement, for instance by setting homework to engage parents and make use of the many free online educational resources about space. Parents were invited to take part in robotics workshops or build models with their children. Some schools ran stargazing events and STEM open days for the whole community, and one organised a video project, encouraging pupils to interview community members about their memories of the moon landings, linking these experiences to the ISS mission. Parental involvement tended to happen more in schools that took a whole-school approach to the project.

There were many instances of parents getting involved without schools necessarily pushing for it (e.g. borrowing extra books from the library, doing more research with their children, learning to build and launch rockets, and using their spare time with their children to work on the project). In some schools, parental involvement was sustained after the end of the project and parents were excited to be involved in other context-based learning activities.

Building connectedness
Family engagement in schools is more than just school-focused events and parent-teacher conferences. It involves the development of formal and informal networks that enable a sense of connectedness to school communities (see for instance the article in this edition from Project Elimu in Kenya). Such networks are important for the development of quality relationships between schools and parents. Further research is needed to understand the role of the TPPP in developing such community connectedness and why/how parents chose to participate. Nevertheless, it is clear that the use of a context that grabs the attention of adults and children alike was a significant reason for TPPP’s success.

Parental involvement does not always improve academic achievement, and activities engaging parents do not necessarily relate to all learners. However, a teacher who encourages parental involvement can change a class, and a school leader who champions parental involvement can change a school environment.

After the TPPP, STEM-UK’s Polar Explorer Programme (PEP) used the building of the RRS Sir David Attenborough explorer vessel – which will gather data in the Arctic and Antarctic over the next 25 years – as a new context for STEM teaching.

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Su Corcoran is a Research Associate at Manchester Metropolitan University and Programme Officer at the Enabling Education Network. The TPPP evaluation report can be found at:

Su can be contacted at: