14 SES 14 A, Reconciliating Communities, Families and Schools
Despite a long-lasting concern of researchers and policymakers, equity in educational systems remains problematic, as can be seen in numerous publications (among others OECD, 2018). Enhancing collaboration between school and disadvantaged families is now considered a powerful measure for promoting better equity (OECD, 2012). School, families and communities are called to build partnerships (Epstein, 2011). However, collaboration is rarely seen as reciprocal: school policies, local school initiatives and even scientific research itself largely focus on the parents’ involvement in their children’s schooling (modeled notably by Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1995), and not so much on the barriers erected by school itself (Kim, 2009). This imbalance reveals the significance of the issue of trust in the called-for partnership between school and families (Poncelet, Dierendonck, Mancuso & Vlassis, 2016): if parents are strongly invited to be partners, they are at the same time often considered with mistrust and their involvement is questioned. Teachers for instance are frequently reported to blame parents of disadvantaged social groups for being deficient in their role as educators (Matthiesen, 2016) and for being invisible in the collaboration with school professionals (Périer, 2019). On the other hand, parents of privileged social groups are criticized for being intrusive (Baeck, 2010; Dubet, 2001). The path is very narrow for parents to relate adequately with school and be considered as trustful partners rather than adversaries.
This communication aims at examining the complex and ambiguous role of trust in the collaboration between school and families: who talks about whose trust (trust in the other, in oneself)? How is trust co-constructed and negotiated in the interactions, in particular in situations of unequal power balance? With what effects on partnership? Is it possible to derive principles or requisites about trust between school and families, in an attempt to “reconciliate” them, so that the called-for partnership truly promotes equity in educational systems and society in general?
We approach the relationship between school and families from a theoretical perspective of intercultural communication (above all Frame, 2014; Gallois, Ogay & Giles, 2005), analyzing the negotiation of identities and co-construction of meaning in the interactions between actors who relate to different cultural frames of reference. For our analysis of trust, we refer specifically to Anxiety and Uncertainty Management (AUM) theory by Gudykunst (2005). A central aspect in this theory is the assumption that, for communication to be efficient, the level of uncertainty and anxiety – influenced among other variables by trust – which is experienced by the interactants should neither be excessive, nor too low.
In this communication, we first report on a case study (Conus & Ogay, 2018) which is part of a larger research project (Ogay, 2017). This case study analyses the evolution of trust in the relationship between a teacher and the mother of a 4-year-old boy throughout his first year of schooling. In a second move, we broaden the focus to the institutional context in which the relationships between teachers and parents are embedded, reporting on first results of a second research project, currently underway within the school administration of the same region where the first project took place. With this second project, we want to shed light on actors who are rarely considered by educational research, while they largely contribute to configure the action of teachers in their classrooms: the professionals working in the administration of a regional school system. Combining these two levels of observation allows us to picture the complex web of relationships, more or less trustful, between the numerous actors who contribute to the collaboration between school and families.
 Both financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Both research projects are located in the traditionally catholic and rural canton of Fribourg in Switzerland, at the junction of two linguistic regions, French- and German-speaking. Adopting an ethnographic approach, we combine non-participant observations, research interviews and collection of documents. We analyze the very rich volume of data qualitatively by means of NVivo 12 software, inspired by grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Miles & Huberman, 1994). The data for the first project has been collected from 2014 through 2016 in a suburban public primary school, located in the French-speaking part of the canton of Fribourg. We selected this school because of its location in a neighborhood consisting of low-cost residential rental properties, inhabited mostly by families with a migration background, which was the case for almost all the 22 families who participated in the study. Data collection for the second project has started in 2019 and will end in 2022. Thanks in particular to the contacts established on the occasion of the feedback about the results of the first project, we have received full access to the staff of the cantonal school administration of Fribourg (precisely the department of obligatory school in French, its German-speaking counterpart, and the bilingual department for special education). In order to understand how the collaboration between school and families is conceived in the school administration, we observe meetings, conduct research interviews and collect documents. Doing research on collaboration between school and families using an ethnographic approach has an interesting mirror effect: collaboration between researchers and their informants is also required, and they face the same relational challenges about trust and mistrust. Their relationship becomes therefore also an object of study. Given this research object, researchers are more than ever called upon to be sensitive to the quality of their relationship with their partners in the field. To ensure this, the values of responsibility, transparency and benevolence guided the elaboration of the ethical principles of the research that have been negotiated with our partners in the field.
In contrast to the great hopes put by many in school-family partnership to improve school equity, our observations show – together with other researchers working in various contexts – that collaboration, and a fortiori partnership, between teachers and parents cannot be simply prescribed by school authorities in order to occur. Our case study shows that the called-for partnership would require high quality in the communication between the actors. Trust plays an important yet ambiguous role: if trust is a necessary ingredient for the development of a relationship, an imbalance and lack of reciprocity in trust doesn’t produce much more than a mere illusion of collaboration – in our case study, on the side of the teacher –, resulting in a decrease in the trust that the parent initially had in the teacher’s professional competence. But things are even more complicated as teachers and parents are not the only actors of the relationship between school and families, which is embedded in the wider sociocultural system. In particular, the school administration largely contributes to the configuration of teachers’ action in their classrooms, and with their pupils’ parents. However, to date, these school actors have largely been ignored by research. Shedding light on the various actors of the collaboration between school and families and describing the web of their (mis)trusting relationships should contribute to a better understanding of the relational challenges of collaboration between school and families, paving the way for better equity.
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