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Blog post Part of special issue: Education research: Northern Ireland

Learning from Covid-19 research in Northern Ireland: Resetting expectations for school–home–community partnerships

Jayne Finlay, Research Associate at Ulster University

The impact of Covid-19 on learning experiences has dominated educational discourse over the past two years. Education practitioners and policymakers now have at their disposal a rich evidence base of global research which has uncovered cracks in existing educational practice and showcased new ways of working which could pave the way for a more effective and equitable education system.

Researchers in the School of Education at Ulster University have undertaken a range of projects to better understand the experiences of teachers (McCaffrey-Lau et al., 2020), school leaders (Beauchamp et al., 2021) and parents/carers (O’Connor et al., 2020; Cahoon et al., 2021; Skinner et al., 2021) during school closures and to help inform responses to the crisis in Northern Ireland and further afield. A key theme permeating this research is the need to adapt and improve communication and collaboration between government, schools, families and communities to support student learning and wellbeing.

A survey of 4,612 parents/carers of children across school sectors (O’Connor et al., 2020) revealed the need for robust two-way communication between school and home to support pupils and provide guidance to parents and carers. Survey results further suggest that where there was flexible teacher/principal communication with parents and carers this provided a much-needed point of educational stability and reassurance. A separate study of school leadership provided positive examples of direct communication between headteachers and families, describing it as a ‘blurring of personal and professional narratives’ which ‘was an important feature of leadership in a dislocated school community and perhaps a unique by-product of the lockdown’ (Beauchamp et al., 2021, p. 386).

‘While pockets of excellence existed across Northern Ireland, communication was not consistently strong across schools and communities.’

While pockets of excellence existed across Northern Ireland, communication was not consistently strong across schools and communities. A study of working parents found that their biggest challenge related to a lack of communication with schools (Skinner et al., 2021). Addressing this divergence in practice requires central communication from government to clarify expectations and responsibilities for building strong home–school partnerships.

Together, these studies offer new ideas for collaboration and communication, including:

  • moving towards two-way authentic engagement between schools and families – such as through use of digital communication apps which enable instantaneous communication between parents and teachers about school work or other student needs
  • reconsidering communication styles between headteachers, teachers and families and being open to altering existing professional and personal boundaries – such as through ‘new forms of communications, such as reflective blogs or vlogs for staff or wider school communities, sharing both educational, material and personal experiences and challenges’ (Beauchamp et al., 2021, pp. 385–386)
  • training teachers and school leaders in new forms of digital communication to ensure consistency of practice across school communities – this should be embedded in initial teacher education, and professional development opportunities should also be prioritised for the existing teaching workforce.

The benefits of parental involvement and of schools working closely alongside families has long been recognised in Northern Ireland. Published policy and guidance from the Department of Education in 2009 and 2011 outlines the instrumental role played by parents in improving educational outcomes for children, and instructs schools to devise strategies for developing links with parents and communities. The ‘Give your child a helping hand’ campaign (launched in 2018) used TV commercials and educational booklets to encourage parents to engage with their child’s learning.

This is an opportune time to reset school–home partnerships and to revise existing strategies, informed by the wealth of new knowledge gleaned from school closures. Guidance should be provided centrally by statutory authorities, with individual schools able to supplement guidance with tailored initiatives appropriate to their own school communities.


Beauchamp, G., Hulme, M., Clarke, L., Hamilton, L., & Harvey, J. (2021). ‘People miss people’: A study of school leadership and management in the four nations of the United Kingdom in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Educational Management, 49(3), 377–392.

Cahoon, A., McGill, S., & Simms, V. (2021). Understanding home education in the context of COVID-19 lockdown. Irish Educational Studies, 40(2), 443–455.

McCaffrey-Lau, M., Clarke, L., Roulston, S., & Galanouli, D. (2020). Northern Ireland teacher survey: Teacher experiences of remote learning in Northern Ireland mainstream schools during the initial 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. Ulster University.

O’Connor Bones, U., Bates, J., Finlay, J., Roulston, S., & Taggart, S. (2020). Ulster University Northern Ireland parent surveys: Experiences of supporting children’s home learning during COVID-19. Ulster University.

Skinner, B., Hou, H., Taggart, S., & Abbott, L. (2021). Working parents’ experiences of home-schooling during school closures in Northern Ireland: What lessons can be learnt? Irish Educational Studies, 1–20.